Last updated at 9:33 AM on 26th January 2012
Popular belief holds that the Northern Lights are a shy phenomenon.
Not only are they said to be elusive but difficult to photograph too and so when, after barely unpacking our suitcases, we see a greyish shaft of light opening up ahead like Batman’s calling card, we aren’t particularly hopeful.
Our guide Ellert reassures us that this is the real thing, that Iceland is (of course) the best place to see them and that we must be patient. So we snap away enthusiastically.
And then there were lights: Sebastian poses against the backdrop of the Aurora Borealis – branded just a two on a scale of ten by Ellert the guide
Sure enough, like the ghosts that haunted the photographs of Victorian hoaxers, appearing only after they were developed, when we look at our cameras the results are spellbinding.
Wisps of green streak across a blue-black sky so starry that it could be snowing (thankfully, it’s not) and as we stand stamping our feet to keep warm, other smoky twists show themselves, faint but definitely there, shifting in shape and intensity with the night sky.
I could delve into the scientific specifics of the Aurora Borealis but then that might just spoil the magic – I prefer to think of them as voluminous billowing curtains of light peeled back across the horizon to reveal this mystic land of fire and ice.
And what a year to see them – NASA, no less, has predicted record activity for 2012, saying it will be the strongest in half a century.
On the road: A tour around the south of Iceland provides plenty of opportunity to catch the ever-changing light
Although if you pin your eyes only to the sky you’ll miss some of the most stirring scenery you might ever see – indeed, if you’re prone to a melancholic disposition, you’ll be in your element.
And of course, it is exactly this, or rather these – the elements – that have shaped the character of Iceland’s people.
Take Ellert for example, an ox of a man (and I mean this admiringly) who, for most of the time, is wearing pyjamas compared to our multi-layered approach to minus temperatures, a man for whom gloves seem an optional extra.
Although duck down and thermals are not needed all of the time. Particularly unnecessary when you’re sipping on an appropriately-coloured cocktail in the Blue Lagoon, our first port of call on a three-day expedition to some of most remote reaches of southern Iceland.
It is perhaps a trip that starts the wrong way round, bathing in the milky waters of this geothermal spa just over two-and-a-half hours after leaving London. The hardier activities are still ahead and our luxurious reward soon to be behind us.
Steaming on: The Blue Lagoon offers visitors the chance to socialise while they enjoy the warm waters
For many Icelanders, the Lagoon is a ritual – a social event-cum-wellbeing rolled into one.
The silica mud, the source of the water’s cloudy appearance, is coveted for its healing properties and chalk-white faces loom from clouds of steam as I wade through the lagoon in search of pleasingly toasty pockets of warm water.
Fresh-faced, we press on to our destination. Hotel Hekla, so-called for its proximity to a most feared volcano, is to be the scene of our flirtation with the Northern Lights.
It is also where Ellert delivers the first in a series of characteristically factual – and unnerving – statements: ‘She is nine months pregnant and due any day.’
Nuisance: At the end of the road that leads to the farm buildings beneath the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, there is an information board proudly displayed
Hekla, a name that even sounds aggressive, is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes and has erupted some 20 times over the last 1000 years. In the Middle Ages it was known as the Gateway to Hell.
Obligingly, she has blown her top around once every decade over the past 50 years and in 1970, gave the locals just 25 minutes notice. Iceland likes to keep you on your frozen toes.
But for its hardy population, facts like these are just a part of life – they are a people forged in the fire of their island’s volcanoes and made hard by its ice. Their very fortunes seem as changeable as the land itself.
The next day, the light doesn’t check in until late morning, the earth’s crown in its wintery state petulantly tilting away from the sun like a spoilt child withholding affection.
In our van, we hug the coast as embers of light bleed onto the horizon just beyond the earth’s curve.
Crystalline: Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is the largest in Iceland and the backdrop to two Bond movies
Ludicrously scenic clusters of illuminated, frothy cloud are backlit by the sun as it stretches its rays awake and the chameleon-like snow flushes now pink, now icy turquoise.
Iceland’s winter landscape is by comparison stark – telegraph poles stand in for trees and a steady stream of lone red-roofed farmhouses flow by, dwarfed by snowy peaks where tongues of cobalt glaciers slide lewdly between.
Lava fields of snow-covered black boulders flank the road, checked off by Ellert and named according to the date they were formed. Fields of fairytale horses with manes that appear to have been professionally coiffured brave the weather, looking up as we motor past.
We stop at the near-unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano, the hot-headed culprit of 2010’s earth-stopping eruption, marked proudly by a picture of the property that stood its ground beneath it, the ash plume like a feather in its cap.
It seems incredible that the world was stopped in its tracks from here, the remotest of locations, like a Bond villain plotting the earth’s ransom from the base of a volcano.
End of the world: The black Reynisfjara beach is lashed by the waves
Ellert explaines the geological make-up of Iceland, which he can do in no less than five languages. Located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, it is a literal hotspot for volcanic and geothermal activity – in the past 200 years, 30 post-glacial volcanoes have asserted their dominance over this land.
We continue on to Reynisfjara, the southernmost point of Iceland, and like we are at the end of the world. The beaches are inky black and the ocean rolls in with a thunderous clap of warning.
Things can change quickly here. Bridges suddenly no longer bridge anything, the rivers they span deciding to spontaneously change course or a rush of melted glacier simply just washes them away. It’s a volcano-eat-volcano world where they stifle each other with their own eruptions. Nature is unfettered.
We make our way to Jökulsárlón, the largest glacier lagoon in Iceland, and the backdrop to James Bond movies Die Another Day and A View to a Kill. Icebergs jut out of the water, forming bluer-than-blue crystalline shapes, a winter sculpture garden carved by nature herself. A seal pops its head briefly out of the water to survey the scene.
On a glacier near to here, the HBO medieval fantasy series A Game of Thrones is being filmed – a fitting backdrop to a land that has a superbly unreal quality.
We make a stopoff at the geysers, where the smell of sulphur is overpowering and boiling water shoots out of the ground at regular intervals, the earth reminding us that, despite appearances, not all is calm beneath the surface of its crust.
Otherwordly: A group of snowmobilers on the Langjökull glacier where conditions can be rather tough
We also make the treacherous walk to the Gullfoss waterfall, a thundering two-tiered affair whose edges are adorned with mounds of creamy ice, like the solidified wax streams of a million melted candles.
For our drive into the interior, Ellert switches our van for a ‘super jeep’ which, with its super-sized wheels, would not look out of place ploughing its way across a line of cars at a monster truck convention.
We are tossed from side to side as the vehicle gives the snowbanks short shrift until the point where, after much reversing and ploughing forward and reversing again, Ellert delivers a knockout blow with typical understatement: ‘We are stuck.’
We laugh, because we don’t know what else to say or do, and we joke about what provisions people have. It turns out our collective supplies are a bottle of water, two lollipops and a few squares of chocolate which is soon squirelled away by its owner.
Going nowhere: The super jeep had to be rescued by a super, super jeep
It is starting to feel a bit like a horror movie because not only are we stuck on a glacier in the ‘inhabitable’ interior, Ellert’s phone has no signal and I spy, although I wish I hadn’t looked, that we are in fact low on fuel too.
Conditions quickly turn hostile, everywhere is white and a bank of pillowy snow silently inches its way up the tires. A wall of swirling flakes quickly envelops our jeep, doing their best to shield us from view and it’s soon a white-out.
Ellert calls for backup and like a vehicular version of Russian dolls, what can only be called a super-super jeep turns up and we all pile up and in. With characteristic brawn, Ellert begins digging our van out alone, his expressionless face set against the elements. He may or may not be wearing gloves.
The limey Britons that we are, we believe our snow-bound internment means a halt to our planned snowmobiling adventure, that we will instead be whisked back in our monster-monster truck to a warm bath and a cup of hot chocolate.
But of course, this is Iceland, where it’s man versus wild and we are soon blazing our way over the glacier, a snaking line of snowmobiles, yellowy lights blinking through a lace curtain of snow.
During what is an undeniably exhilarating ride, I’d love to say that I spend my time marvelling at the scenery of the Langjökull glacier, but I am far too busy trying to concentrate on being master over my machine. And obsessing over whether the feeling in my fingers – which are fast becoming as hard as wood – will ever return.
It is a welcome relief to spend a night amid the comfort of the Radisson Blu 1919 in Reykyavik, if only to gain the use of my extremities. We wander around the pretty streets and peer into the windows of shops selling temptingly warm traditional jumpers.
We take a walk up to the Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s magnificent landmark cathedral. It has a distinctly art deco feel as its tower concertinas out to form a pair of outstretched wings.
It is said to have been designed to resemble the lava flows of the local landscape but then nothing could really replicate the wonders of Iceland than Iceland herself.
A double/ twin room at Hotel Hekla in January is £65 per person per night and a three-course dinner is £28 per person (www.hotelhekla.is +354 486 5540).
Prices for a standard room at the Radisson Blu 1919 start at £121 per night with breakfast (www.radissonblu.com/1919hotel-reykjavik).
Mountaineers of Iceland offers a one-hour snowmobiling trip on the Langjökull Glacier, including a super jeep ride there, Golden Circle tour (Gulfoss Waterfall, Geysir and Thingvellir National Park) and pick up and drop off to the hotel in Reykjavik for £182 per person. Bookings can be made at www.mountaineers.is.
A private superjeep with an English guide for four to five people from Snaeland Grimmson is £500 per day. Bookings and enquiries can be made at: www.snaeland.is +354 588 8660.
Blue Lagoon entry is £25 per person. Further details can be found at www.bluelagoon.com.
Return flights with Icelandair from Heathrow to Reykjavik start at £230 return and flights from Glasgow to Reykjavik start at £320 per person (www.icelandair.co.uk).
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