Most travellers spend weeks to find out the best way to travel around the country. Since there are no trains in Iceland, my partner and I were left with only two options, to take a bus or hire a car. Instead, he decided to run across Iceland and were amazed by its beauty and wonderful discoveries.
Running across Iceland... The funny thing is that running in this glorious scenery is often intensely boring. Why? Because the sky and the landscape of glaciers, mountains and lava deserts are so immense, the road so damned straight that nothing changes over long distances. It's like being on a treadmill in a palace. You glance up occasionally and marvel, but most of the time you're just praying for a bend in the road that will offer a change of scenery or pace.
Iceland is green... When Erik the Red, banished from Iceland for football hooliganism or the contemporary equivalent, sailed west and made landfall, he did a bit of creative labelling to entice his countrymen to go and live in this ice-covered territory, naming it "Greenland". Iceland, by ironic contrast, is green. Not all of it, but when it is green, it is glaringly, dazzlingly, eye-rubbingly green. Lime-coloured moss meanders through the landscape, lining the edges of streams. Grasses glow. Shrubs shine. And in among them are alpine and meadow flowers of all colours.
Eglisstadir – on the edge... On a fine sunny morning, my partner and I reached Eglisstadir, the eastern tip of Iceland and much to the amazement of the school going children, started to run back in the direction from which we had come. "Where are you going?" asked one. "To Reykjavik", we said with a smile. We were running across Iceland. We decided to do so, because we thought it would be fun and a great way to see Iceland. We were taking the southern route, part of which climbed over passes and along the tip of the Vatnajokull Gracier. The first half of the journey was a great experience when mountains, rivers, glaciers and volcanoes began to unfold in front of us.
The Golden Circle... After Vík we pretended part-time to be tourists and headed inland to see some of the sights in the so-called 'Golden Circle'. This route encompasses Geysir, site of the geyser after which all the others in the world were named and of other spectacularly spouting, bubbling and boiling thermal features; Gullfoss, a waterfall of Niagaran splendour with a right-angled bend between its two enormous drops; and ?ingvellir, a rift valley that separates the North American tectonic plate from the European and is widening by 2 cm a year.
About Iceland... Iceland stretches about 540 km east to west. Norwegians were the first to settle it, in the 9th and 10th centuries, beginning in 874. It claims many firsts and oldest. Icelandic is the oldest continuously existing language in Europe and has changed little since the days of the sagas, except in its pronunciation. Life expectancy in Iceland is high, unemployment is low and the country has a literacy rate of close to 100%, the highest in the world. Reykjavik, the capital, with a population of around 175,000, in a national population of a bit over 285,000, has an astonishing variety of cultural offerings: seven libraries, eight historical museums, nine art museums, nine theatres and more than 30 professional drama groups.
Vatnajökull, an ice cap... Dominating the southern half of the island is Vatnajökull, an ice cap that is bigger than all the glaciers of Europe put together. It dates back 2000 years, covers 8,400 sq. km, is 400 metres thick and holds 200 volcanoes.
In the coastal town of Hafnarfjördur – a place that is more fun to visit than to pronounce – you find the smallest mountain in Iceland. The town hosts an international Viking festival and offers guided tours of what is, according to the local seer, the country's largest community of elves.
Iceland's largest forest... Near the town of Egilsstadir on the east coast is Iceland's largest forest. It is about the size of a country park in Britain or mainland Europe and reflects the great paucity of trees on the island. Forests occupy only 1% of the land in Iceland and in a reforestation programme run by the government in the 1960s and 1970s, Icelanders were given seeds to thrown out of their cars as they drove around the country. Another 1% of the land is arable. Icelanders' main occupations as fishing, cultivation in greenhouses warmed by water from natural springs and, latterly, tourism.
The Arctic Circle clips the north of Iceland and the island is warmed, like Britain, by the Gulf Stream. The island therefore enjoys warmer temperatures than mainland Europe of the same latitude, while also basking in 18 or more hours of daylight at the height of summer. The other side of that coin is the long period of darkness that shrouds every day in winter. Iceland's national park at Skaftafell, a warm and balmy 11 degrees C in July and merely freezing in January, is well vegetated with shrub, some trees and wild flowers and rises to a mountain top at 710 metres.
The Blue Lagoon, a thermally heated open-air lake, where in winter you can bask in the water and be snowed on at the same time, was created by accident. Condensed water from a nearby power plant was pumped away and expected to disappear, but instead the minerals it contained made the lava watertight. These minerals, along with silica and algae, give the lagoon its blue colour. Here you can give yourself a natural face mask by scooping out some white mineral paste from a bucket at the side of the lagoon and slapping it on your face. White-faced figures shrouded in steam from the warm water and the moon-surface rocks that surround the pool give the place a surreal atmosphere.
Iceland is a paradise for bird lovers... As well as the eider duck, skua, kittiwake, Arctic tern and many kinds of gull, there is the delightful puffin, which, if you are lucky, will come and sit beside you on a cliff. Most puffins are born in Iceland. They learn to fly the hard way when their parents literally toss them out of the nests, and, after a little practice, can reach a top speed of 80 km/h. They migrate to and from Newfoundland, Norway, Ireland and Britain. Puffins mature at five years and can live to nearly 30, although some end up on restaurant menus before their allotted lifespan is over. Icelanders are fond of their puffins and may band together to help 'lost' birds get back to the shores or the hillsides where they belong.
Volcanic eruptions... In 1783 there was an enormous volcanic eruption, which created a lava field extending over 565 sq. km and measuring 12 cu. km in volume. So damaging was the event that the population fell from 50,000 to 38,000. The lava field, now covering stretching out along and around the main road round the south of Iceland, is the largest ever formed in a single eruption in recent times. Another catastrophic event was the glacial burst that occurred in November 1996, when a volcanic eruption beneath Vatnajökull caused a massive outflow of lava spilling out over the ice and all the way down to the sea, about 25 km away, taking with it bridges and parts of the road.
Fire Gorge... A spectacular part of southern Iceland is the 40-km long Fire Gorge, reachable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles that can ford rivers and negotiate rough ground. Red rock, green moss and stunning waterfalls characterise this remote valley. You pass by the Fire Gorge on the way to Landmannalaugur, a place of extraordinary beauty and untouched in a way unimaginable in even the furthest reaches of the British Isles. Here rhyolite, a volcanic rock, assumes all the colours of the rainbow – even blue – and the barren, multi-hued rolling hills rise above flat plains, thermal pools, fields of jagged, porous lava and thermal vents, gently smoking and reeking of sulphur. Each year an Ultramarathon is held around Landmannalaugur, comprising stages of 10 km, 11 km, 16 km and 13.5 km. There is also a conventional marathon held in Reykjavik in August.
Kirkjubaerklaustur – which translates roughly as "church farm cloister" – sits on a river near the sea and it was here that the great lava flow of 1783 came to an abrupt halt, because, the residents believed, they had prayed for salvation in the small church at that site. The end of the lava can still be clearly seen near the village. A little way along the river is Sisters Rock, where, the story goes, two nuns were buried after being burnt at the stake for breaking their vows. One was said to have consecrated Communion bread at the door of a privy and to have had carnal knowledge of men. The other had spoken blasphemously of the Pope. After the Reformation, the first nun was proclaimed innocent and beautiful flowers grew on her grave; the second nun's grave remained barren.
Such were the discoveries and pleasures of running across Iceland that we rarely remember the tiredness we felt during our 30-day run. Most people hire a car and travel round the ring road visiting places en route. We hired a car as well but it was driven by our administrative team that carried our tents and provisions including a carton of beer. A cheaper way is to buy a bus pass that allows you to get on and get off when you like. But no matter how you travel, you are sure to enjoy Iceland like no other place on this world.