Swirls of white are all I can see when I look out: snowflakes as big as cotton balls drift past my window, slide down the roofs of the buildings, and form a carpet near the entrance of the hotel. Iceland, the country I am in, lives up to its name.
As my tour bus approaches, I step out, rather reluctantly, from the warmth of my hotel into the cold. We are leaving the outskirts of Reykjavík, taking one of the many roundabout exits — I can see at least three more up ahead. The bus window frames a mall, a few parking lots and houses, a lake, and then sparkling white fields on both sides. White-ish brown roads, bluish-white mountains — with speckles of brown due to patches of moss — and stick-like birch trees stand guard on the edges of the road: I feel I have landed inside a moonscape. There are absolutely no people, and I expect White Walkers to march across any moment.
“This is actually pleasant weather,” our guide announces, interrupting my train of thought. “It’s going to clear up soon, and then we will get bright sunshine. Iceland weather can change more than four times in a day, but we are going to be lucky today and have a clear forecast,” she says. And, truly, it stops snowing and does clear up: we can now see more fields, bright red or blue-roofed houses, steam from hot springs curling at the bottom of the hills and herds of horses that look like ponies. The horses are uniquely adapted to Iceland’s weather, says the guide. “We leave them outside to graze, and I’ve seen them stand still even through blizzards. The only thing they don’t adapt to is the special snacks some tourists feed them, which upsets the local farmers,” the guide adds. I immediately cancel my plan of trying to pet and feed any of these horses, and wave guiltily as a couple of them seem to stare at me reproachfully.
The bus rounds a corner, and we cross the town of Hvolsvollur. As we approach the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, the mountains loom larger and columns of mist arise from the fields. The caps of the mountains glisten like pearls, which are part of the Eyjafjallajökull, Icelandic for Island Mountain Glacier. The volcano in the depth of this glacier erupted in 2010 and resulted in thousands of flights getting cancelled due to the volcanic ash in the air. The waterfalls here at that time had turned grey, but I can see milk-like streams flowing down, cutting through the rocks.
As I scramble up the slippery path through the cliff and go behind the waterfall, the word majestic bounces inside my head. Water streams down from above my head and arcs into the ground below. For a few minutes, the thud of the spray resonates; it showers my clothes and face, and I feel the tiredness from my long journey from India melting away. I climb down and fill my water bottle from the clear, cobalt water of the Seljalands river, get into the bus, and gear up for the next sight.
Skógafoss is considered to be the largest waterfall in Iceland, with a width of 49 ft and a drop of 200 ft. Here, the force and volume of the mist are such that rainbows are a common feature at the bottom. As I watch a double rainbow lighting up the sky, I recall the legend that this spot is where the first Viking settler, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a treasure chest. There is a trail to the right of the waterfall with around 500 steps, and we climb up to the top to get a view of the Skógargil ravine where we can see as many as 30 smaller waterfalls. Savouring the spectacular view at the top, as we catch our breath, it’s easy to understand why this has been the location for many films, like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), and the Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol starrer Dilwale (2015).
Next, we drive to the town of Vik, which is located to the east of the mountain Reynisfjall, with its houses, red-roofed church and harbour overshadowed by the two basalt tower-like rock formations in the middle of the sea surrounding it. These are called Reynisdrangar, which are two trolls that turned into stone, as per local legend. We then drive around to the opposite side of the mountain and reach the other-worldly black sand beach, Reynisfjara.
Snow-capped waves contrast with the glistening black pebbles of the beach, while the cliff at the edge is a pyramid made of hexagonal pillars of basalt rocks stacked on top of the other. The waves seem to be racing against each other as they reach the shore and the landscape is yet another fairy-tale picture. This is a popular spot for bridal photo shoots and we see a couple pose for the camera, steering clear of the waves that have been known to sweep away tourists in the past few years.
Sólheimajökull, an outlet glacier of the icecap Mýrdalsjökull, is our final stop. Katla, the volcano located underneath the mountain here, has erupted every 50 years and is long overdue for another eruption. The information board at the beginning of the hike warns that the glacier, which has been measured regularly since the 1930s, is retreating, and might disappear in a century if global warming continues.
At the moment though, all is serene, and as we hike through the riverbed, and perch on some of the lower rocks for short pauses, I can visualise the prevalent legend of the river here: Two magicians, Prasi and Loðmundur, battling each other, channeling the river into each other’s lands, toppling and breaking and forming rocks that end up appearing like giants.
As the sun starts to set, turning the mountains behind me an indescribable shade of whitish pink, I think of the sights that make up Iceland: the fiery volcanoes within mountains capped by ice that freezes rocks into mythical shapes. I begin to understand why more than half of Icelanders believe in hidden folks, elves, and trolls. I realise that this is a country that makes you believe in magic and fall in love with the world around you, again.
Jonaki Ray is a poet and writer based in Delhi.