Boots scurry through volcanic gravel. A sliding door slams. The engine rumbles, the van lurches forward – and so the journey begins. Before me I see scrubland worming up through black volcanic fields, mountain ranges wildly stripped of green, waterfalls gushing from stunted valleys, lagoons littered with sky-blue chunks of ice, and ponds so still and so clear that they are mirrors to an inverted world – one where the sky or a mountain crag hangs upside-down.
There is cold and there is wind, and the wind amplifies the cold greatly. We push east, and as we drive farther east than Kirkjubaejarklaustur, one of many remote villages stapled to Iceland’s southern coast, the wind goes from ‘cooling a spoonful of soup’ to ‘blowing out trick candles’. Our van lurches across the road, its rear tires drift, and we buckle up.
Glaciers and volcanoes dominate Iceland. Of the former, we manage to see Jokulsarlon and Solheimajokull, sloping down alongside mountains; their cracked ice looks like a tilted sea, white water frozen in place. As for volcanoes, Katla and Eyjafjallajokull require signs to spot along the mountain-populated coastline, but their influence is visible and vast. Everything of rock — stones, boulders, hills and mountains bereft of turf, even the beach-sand — is shades of black and gunmetal. The dark canvas is set: from the glacial mounds to the streams, water clear as air even when stressed to foam, which gather to rivers and tumble from black-rock heights to final stretches of rivers, to lagoons and finally to the ocean.
At the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, black sand cuts at the skin like iron filings. My brother and I walk backwards, blind, to avoid damage to our corneas, though it still stings any exposed inches of skin. After some minutes of forward back-pedalling the sandstorm stops, though not for lack of wind. I turn and sprint to near the Atlantic. It rears and washes, sprays and flecks my glasses with its brine. Our camera lenses, too – our photos at that beach came out blurry and indistinct; aesthetically useless though utterly true to the moment. Blocks of ice sat washed up on the gunpowder shore, froth lapping their bases. The wind pelted us still. After some time spent admiring the breadth of the ocean and of the volcanic sands, we turned back, scuttling away as sand clawed at our backs.
Just before hitting Vik — Iceland’s tourist capital along the southern coast — there’s a bay, one end of which is titled Dyrholaey, the other Reynisdrangar. Like most of the gravel roads which split off from the single main road, the rustic simplicity of the path belies what will show at its end. Even at its end, the view was – by south-coast Icelandic standards – fairly average: a craggy mound of black stone rising high near us, mostly bald of turf and fields of volcanic black carpeting the world. We bundled up. Outside, the wind nearly screamed against the walls of the van, a high-pitched omen. Cracking the door, we three poured out and were instantly windswept.
Before us there was a small hut, behind which lay the viewing point for the Dyrholaey shoreline. Thick stone plinths stood beside the hut like idling gatekeepers, and we passed through them to continue on our path to the sea. Perhaps we should have heeded the unspoken warning of the plinths. The path stretched down, and from its end blew a sudden and massive wind, pushing us — three largish men — back, so that the relatively short trek turned into a battle of sorts. We won, and though the price was great, the reward was greater. The Atlantic, from above, reeled and tossed as it did at Jokulsarlon later, crashing onto rocks whose black skin patterned into dragon scales. We stood by the ruins of a lighthouse, two huge foundational blocks of concrete overlooking the edge of this volcanic island. The wind howled, pushed against us, but we still caught a privileged glimpse of the great rocks and beach lines it sought to keep hidden.
Images courtesy of Hudson Cleveland.