Tuesday 18 October 2011

The Natural Beauty Of Iceland

After a busy festival season, we took a long weekend break to South West Iceland. Offering a vast amount of untouched natural beauty unlike any other country we have experienced, we were amazed by dramatic landscapes and the ways in which humans have adapted and colonized these barren lands.

Iceland has a total area of 103,000 square kilometres and a population of around 320,000. Like Australia, the majority of its inhabitants live in close proximity to the coast. The interior is mainly made up of uninhabitable plateaus, mountains and glaciers.

 This European island country has a vast amount of untouched natural beauty and is very active, both volcanically and geologically. There is a large reindeer population (of which 10% is culled each year) and a large population of domesticated Icelandic sheep and horses. It is of no surprise that there is a strong traditional history of spinning, weaving and knitting wool. Undyed wools range in colour from white through grey to black and also various browns. Today's farming of sheep is primarily for meat with the fleeces being a valuable bi-product. 

The large glaciers lying within Iceland's interior provide powerful rivers flowing to the ocean. Hydropower is a real option for sustainable energy as is the use of natural steam provided by the volcanic energy. You will find trees dotted around, but this is a far cry from the Iceland of the 12th century where it would have been covered with forests of Northern Birch, Aspen, Rowan and Common Juniper. Exploitation for firewood and building materials has led to loss of critical topsoil, now making the re-planting of trees difficult.

A delight to witness were the intermittent explosions of boiling water from Iceland's Strokkur geyser. This phenomenon exists in only a few places on Earth, usually located near active volcanic areas. The water is heated by hot rocks many hundreds of metres below ground where it expands until the pressure forces its way to the surface. We witnessed the geyser's eruptions with intervals of between 5 and 7 minutes and to heights in excess of 30m.

Lakes and glaciers cover almost 15% of the entire country and around 23% is vegetated. Large areas of lava rock is covered by a beautiful thick layer of moss. This moss appears to be the most abundant form of plant life surviving the elements on the rugged porous rock. In time the moss will develop into soil that will allow other species of flora a chance to take root.

The expansive old lava flows are very difficult to cross on foot as it is extremely rugged and made more dangerous by the layers of thick sponge-like moss covering gaps and loose footings. These areas are best, (if not only) enjoyed from the roads that carve through them. It was an educational trip that highlighted the delicate balance of nature and also the possibilities of sustainable energy production.

If you fancy a break with a difference, I would recommend Iceland. The terrain is as spectacular as it is different. You would be wise to pack very warm clothing, waterproofs and a camera. If you are lucky, you may also be treated to a dazzling display by the Aurora Borealis in the Northern sky.