LAND OF FOG AND TARMAC – A BRIEF ENCOUNTER.
“I’m taking your father out for the day for his birthday. Would you like to come?’
How nice. A leisurely jaunt up the Northumberland coast to windswept Bamburgh Castle ? Or perhaps a drive through Weardale, over the Pennines to Westmoreland and on into the Lake District? Maybe a meander along the back roads of the North Yorkshire Moors to the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey and a spot of lunch in Helmsley?
“Of course I’d like to come, where are we going?”
“The frozen food shop? That’s not much of a birthday trip.”
“Not the shop, the country. You know, land of fire, ice and cod wars, all that jazz.”
“Mother you can’t go to Iceland for the day. It’s almost the Arctic.”
“I can, and we are.”
And so it was that I found myself boarding a small passenger jet at Teesside Airport, one bitterly cold morning in mid-January, with my parents in tow. I envisaged snow-covered plains, windswept ponies, dancing aurora, rosy-cheeked blondes, steaming geysers, grass-roofed cottages, volcanic rumbles, that sort of thing. Mother was beside herself with excitement, father looked mildly horrified, having only ever holidayed in the Neapolitan Riviera or the Cotswolds. In June. Every June.
“Ooh land of the midnight sun!” exclaimed mother as we took our seats.
“It’s January mother. And that’s Norway.”
The beautiful Scandic-cool airport at Keflavik was deserted. Ours was the only flight to arrive that morning. No staff. No passengers. We were met in the arrivals hall by our enthusiastic tour guide and herded onto a waiting coach for a “Tour of Iceland’s Magnificent Volcanic Landscapes”. Iceland’s volcanic landscapes may well be magnificent but it was hard to tell as they were still cloaked in pitch black darkness and enveloped in dense fog, punctuated by occasional disconcerting clouds of steam emitting from the roadsides. For all we knew we could have been driving around the access roads of the local industrial estate for an hour.
Iceland was not icy. In fact it wasn’t even cold. There wasn’t a single snowflake to be had. It had been colder back in Middlesbrough. The “land of fire and ice” was something of a misnomer; “land of fog and tarmac” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
The bus came to a halt and we were invited to disembark, to experience “the raw beauty of the landscape”. I clambered down the coach steps and the icy rain hit me in the face like a jet from a hosepipe, instantly dissolving my mascara and removing three layers of skin, penetrating my waterproofs in seconds.
I found myself on the edge of a cliff, at the end of the world, wild waters crashing on the black basalt beach below me, battered by winds so strong I could barely stand. Father’s face had “WHAT THE HELL KIND OF BIRTHDAY PRESENT IS THIS?” written all over it. And how we laughed. This was insane. Wonderfully insane.
One little known fact about Iceland that our guide had apparently forgotten to tell us is that nobody actually lives there. It’s an illusion, a film set, a beautiful practical joke. The capital, Reykjavik, was completely deserted at one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. Shops, restaurants, streets – all empty. We wandered through this tiny city, amongst pretty little wooden houses painted in shades of red, green, blue and ochre and saw no-one. We gazed in awe at the soaring origami-fold walls of the moonstone-coloured Hallgrimskirja cathedral, eerily silent and ostensibly abandoned.
Where WAS everybody?
After a brief mooch around the capital, we headed to the famous Blue Lagoon thermal pools for an hours’ relaxation before our flight home, and the highlight of the trip. These other-worldly steaming milky turquoise waters are actually man-made, the by-product from an adjacent thermal-powered energy plant. And that’s when we found them – the entire bloody population of Iceland, revelling in their glorious couldn’t -care-less Scandinavian nakedness, crammed into an open-plan changing room. Mother raised an eyebrow, then muttered something about “when in Rome”…Moments later I sank into the hot mineral-rich waters, rain stinging my face. I have never experienced anything else quite like it, before or since. Quite simply it was delicious. You have to go there.
Later that same evening I sat at home with a mug of tea, watching News at Ten, ruminating with some incredulity on the day’s events. Did that actually happen? Had I really just been to Iceland and back in time for supper? It may have been the briefest of encounters, but I was hopelessly, crazily and madly in love with the Land of Fog and Tarmac.
(c) Jane Gulliford Lowes 2016.