Land of Fire and Ice: Geography trip to Iceland 2018

On Sunday 8th July, 27 geographers and four staff met at Manchester Airport.  Temperatures were reaching 26°C in England so packing hats, gloves and scarves stated on the Iceland kit list had been a challenge for everyone. Negotiating one of the busiest check-ins ever was our next challenge especially when the baggage conveyor system ground to a standstill and that was before several girls were delayed through security. The result was we only had time to purchase bottles of water before rushing to board. The plan of a leisurely lunch in the airport lounge was only a dream but we could purchase food on the flight and Iceland Air offers in-flight films, so our adventure was underway. Arrival at Keflavik airport however greeted us with temperatures of 10°C, wind, rain and thick grey skies. We had been warned Iceland was having its worst Summer for a 100 years, but the girls were not to be thwarted by inclement conditions. After all, we were used to surviving Britain’s unpredictable summers.

Our driver was friendly, knowledgeable about his country and was excellent at English which he delivered with a rich Scottish accent, so we could relax on this trip knowing we would arrive at our planned destinations. We headed across the lunar landscape of lava fields of Southern Iceland with spouts of steam from Gunnihver hot springs on the horizon. All a vivid reminder to us of the active volcanic region we had landed on. First stop was the amazing Blue Lagoon, a unique mineral-rich lake, formed from geothermal sea water but containing two thousand tonnes of silica. Blue-green algae gives the lagoon its milky aquamarine colour and the silica provides a natural source of minerals which many of us applied to our faces hoping for instant rejuvenation … at least the teachers hoped. Swimming around in the 37°C heated water was relaxing but the trick was to stay submerged as the cold wind lifted the surface into small waves whilst the rain had a welcome cooling effect on the face. The height of luxury was being able to enjoy a soft Icelandic drink from the lagoon bar whilst staying almost submerged in the warm waters. Our expert Food Technology teachers recommended the blueberry smoothies made with Icelandic yoghurt for all their nourishing properties.  It was a bit too chilly for lots of photographs as it required you to leave the comfort of the hot water to be blasted with the chilly air but it was certainly an experience to be remembered and there was never one word of complaint about the weather … England’s heat wave was forgotten already.

It was after 8pm when we eventually arrived at our rural retreat in Hvolsvollur for the next two nights. It was a small Guest house, named Husid, run by Jana and her family. The buildings like so many in the countryside were made of wood and corrugated iron to help withstand the frequent minor earthquakes, often only small tremors but sufficient to shake the buildings so more flexible building materials are sensible. It had, however, unlike many of the other buildings we saw, lots of character as it was a former school house built in 1929. We all had cosy clean rooms with views across the empty Icelandic plain and hills stretching away to the North. Some of the girls had rooms up in the rafters, all were clad in a soft pine wood giving it a welcoming warmth. Daylight only really faded at 2am and this resulted in everyone remaining decidedly bright in spite of our busy first day. Darkness only lasted a couple of hours but no one was awake to witness the early dawn as we all caught up on our sleep and being an hour behind in time was a help. Living with an Icelandic family in this way and eating homecooked food was all part of the experience and everyone ate well and we had our own dining area and lounge which was excellent.

The first proper physical geography day was all about ice, waves and water. The nearest ice cap to us was the South Myrdalsjokull with the long tongue of the Solheimajokull glacier flowing southwards from it.  This was our first stop. This outlet glacier is 8km long descending from the Katla caldera at a height of 1,505m. Sub-glacial eruptions have caused the glacier to change and geothermal melts are added to its outputs quite regularly. Standing at the towering snout and walking on huge mounds of moraine brought to life the process of glacial retreat of this vast glacier –  not something you can achieve in the GCSE Geography classroom! Led by an experienced mountain guide team, we were set up with harnesses, crampons, hard helmets and pickaxes, equipping for ice hiking across the glacier.  The surface is covered with volcanic ash from a Katla eruption over 100 years ago, and much of it has formed distinctive cones which still insulate and protect the ice beneath. Since 1995, the glacier has retreated by 50m a year and to visibly see the water pouring off the ice and huge blocks calving off its snout and floating into the melt water lake helped us appreciate the scale of the retreat.  The challenging concept of glaciation with its characteristic processes and landforms was made very real and understandable as we viewed the sheer mountainsides of the U-shaped valley and identified hanging valleys and lateral moraine. However, at the same time, it provided some exciting photo opportunities for all the girls as evidence of their experience in one of the most unique landscapes they will visit. To know Icelandic scientists have predicted many of the glaciers here will disappear within the next 150 years due to climate change was made all the more shocking as we digested the scale and impact this would have. This adventure on the ice was a real highlight of the trip.

Lunch was at the black beaches of the most Southern resort in Iceland, Vik. To know the south coast of Iceland is pounded by severe storms from winds that have crossed thousands of kilometres of open unobstructed ocean, helped explain how the black vertical basalt cliffs have been eroded. We were fascinated by the amazing black conical stacks standing away from the headland they were once part of. Our wonderful coach driver (who we all felt was our own Billy Connolly), explained that according to Icelandic legend these sharp stacks were the petrified remains of two trolls trying to drag a ship ashore in a storm and had been turned to stone. We left the girls to decide geographical processes or mystical legends?  For an hour of our stay the weather had a kind moment and we sat on the black sand beach watching the crashing destructive waves and appreciating the strength of the coastal processes that attack the volcanic rocks at this point.

The brand-new shop and restaurant by the side of this beach were evidence of the booming tourist industry in this remote small Icelandic settlement as was the numerous coaches that arrived. After lunch, our visit to the black beach at Reynisfjara on the other side of the headland was a wonderful energising experience. The beach was again black sands but here the columnar basalt cliffs were astonishing features. Basalt lava can cool under certain conditions to form polygonal shapes and here columns were mainly hexagonal separated by vertical joints and fractures in the rock. The uniformity of these columns took your breath away and again provided a special photo opportunity with the girls providing a key scale to appreciate the size of the landscape features. The next most memorable moment was spotting the puffins that burrow on the cliff tops between May and August. Amber, who was one of our expert photographers captured the cutest puffin with her special lens.

See a slideshow of Amber’s fantastic landscape photography:

This was all the more significant because Amber, together with two other artists Pearl and Manasa, had chosen and designed the image of the puffin for our hoodies. Iceland is home to one of the largest colonies of puffins but they spend most of their lives at sea so to spot one on land was a special moment and significant because this unusual little bird is an Icelandic symbol.

On the journey back, we stopped at two breathtaking waterfalls. Skogafoss – 60 metres high – was tumbling down into a deep plunge pool and created so much spray we could not avoid being soaked but the sound of the thundering water and visual closeness made us realise the power of this falling curtain of water. Climbing up the steep steps to the top to gain a birds-eye view gave us all a good workout and we could appreciate how the wall of rock, over which the waters were tumbling, was a previous sea cliff and the low-lying land it plunges towards was in fact once below sea level.  Since the last Ice Age, land has been rising slowly relative to the level of the sea as it rebounds, following the loss of the weight of ice. Here, it has created a line of relic coastal cliffs. The best way to appreciate such huge geological changes must be seeing it first hand and the girls will never forget this experience and the striking visual evidence.

Our next waterfall had the added excitement that the thinner cascade of water had eroded the back wall to create a concave recess into which a path has been cut, so we could walk behind it, the only waterfall of its kind on Iceland.

Again, our waterproofs were essential but another experience we will never forget. Our girls knew a lot about waterfalls from their Rivers unit and could identify many processes at work but also now realised other long-term geological processes needed to be understood to explain the majestic falls of Iceland.

As is the Icelandic tradition we stopped off at the local village pool before returning back to our Guest House. Geothermally heated water readily available, attracts Icelanders to relax in hot tubs and the children play in the pool after most days at work. It was a little chilly accessing the water as the cold winds and rain had picked up again but, as always, everyone in the group rose to the challenge and we arrived back to Husid ravenous. They even smiled through a short evening lesson using their study books to assimilate all the processes we had experienced on our adventures. It was impressive to hear how they clearly understood how this landscape had been moulded by ice and fire. A geographical game brought out our competitive Withington spirit and there was a lot of laughter – no one seemed remotely perturbed by the gathering grey clouds and rainfall and we all felt quite cosy in this remote rural spot.

The next morning, we packed to leave and everyone was on board and organised. Making their own sandwiches for each trip was a treat. Poor Emma, whose bag had got lost in the baggage fiasco at Manchester Airport, had borrowed clothes and kit from friends and had really kept her spirits up then luckily the bag arrived from Iceland Air just before we left Husid.

Our next two nights were to be in Rejkjavik so we waved off Jana and her young son who had the excitement of a two-minute ride on the coach before he had to get off, tearful that it was all over. Only a fieldtrip like this would link you so closely with an Icelandic family which enriched our experience and highlighted the human geography we needed to understand.  Jana even introduced the girls to an Icelandic Karaoke session and had us all singing after breakfast. We felt very proud that the girls rose to this fun interlude with such good spirit at a fairly early hour.

Our next stop was the other key highlight when we were taken to Solhestar and enjoyed a trek on Icelandic horses. The experienced riders were saddled up first and great care was taken over those who felt more nervous, including Mrs Healey, but by the end of it we were all in love with our beautiful horses. Many who had not ridden for a while rediscovered their old skills and although some would have liked longer, we enjoyed a taste of Icelandic ‘tolting’ which is like a trot.  The wonderful tawny colours of the horses contrasted with the expanse of rather bleak Icelandic countryside spreading before us under the heavy grey skies but no one let the rain spoil the experience – in fact, it was forgotten as we concentrated on these beautiful creatures that carried us along.  A chocolate biscuit and hot drink was a surprise treat at the end.

The rest of our day was all about recognising how tectonically active Iceland is. Many volcanoes are broad and flat topped on Iceland as plates pull apart and the lava is runny and spreads easily. They are sometimes hard to recognise as volcanoes however we were able to visit one of the craters, Keria crater, that dates back to an explosion 6000 years ago. This was formed towards the end of the eruption and as the magma chamber beneath the volcano emptied the cone collapsed, creating an oval-shaped crater 55m deep. We walked round this impressive crater which is occupied by a lake where it meets the ground water which rises and falls with the changes in the water table. A totally submerged viewing bench was evidence of their wet summer. Here, the lava was iron rich and had a distinctive red appearance and, even under grey skies, the lake was unmistakably blue.

Our lunch stop was at the Geysir geothermal area where we could see Strokkur Geysir erupting every six minutes with its boiling water emerging from the ground and shooting skywards to a height of 15 metres! Around this thermal area were steam vents, boiling springs and beautiful turquoise blue pools. For our party, it presented us with challenging photo opportunities in attempts to capture the explosive moment.

Even just feeling the heat of the ground in this area, there was unquestionable evidence that a lot of tectonic activity must be going on beneath us. Human geography also really kicked in as it was clear this was a honey pot, lots of visitors were pouring off coaches and the facilities were very crowded. Many were from the cruise liners that stop off in Iceland and visit this area as part of the Golden Circle experience. Whilst there, we also stopped to see the Golden Waterfall ‘Gullfoss’ one of the most spectacular and most visited sites.  It is located on a huge glacial White river, and is a two-tiered waterfall. The entire cascade drops 32 metres into a narrow canyon 70 metres deep and 2.5 metres long. The enormous crashing sheets of white foaming water were spectacular enough but for the first time, the sun managed to break through the cloud, and what a moment for us. The waterfall is famed for its fine spray hanging in the air and forming a rainbow when in contact with rays of sunshine and we were privileged to see this beautiful effect first hand. Again, our human geography kicked in as we could see the visitor pressure and we questioned whether the rapid growth of tourism seems to be outstripping the provision of tourist facilities. Also, the new wider metal staircase constructed in 2017 is undoubtedly essential but takes away something from the spectacular natural landscape!

Our journey over this active area ended at Thingvellir National park, for a group of geographers, this is a very special location and is now protected as a National Park and, in 2004, became a World Heritage Site. Sitting directly on the boundary of the North American Plate to the west and the Eurasian Plate to the east, the diverging plates have formed a large rift valley. The rift spreads by about 2cm a year. This is the only place where such a spreading ridge with its fissures and fault scarps can be seen above sea level. For most of its length the mid-Atlantic ridge is found on the bed of the ocean and ‘sea floor spreading’ is explored only from satellite images. We, though, actually walked across this new land increasing the separation of the American and European continental plates and, although the rain and cold prevented us spending a lengthy time in this area of stunning beauty, several students were observant enough to recognise it as one of the film locations for the ‘Game of Thrones’.

We arrived at the Hotel Cabin, Reykjavik, in the early evening on Tuesday July 9th and said farewell to our wonderful coach driver as our aim was to explore this small accessible capital city ourselves. We had been upgraded into executive rooms and had our own corridor and, although cosy with four in each room, it was all very comfortable and the luxury of en-suite and a lovely breakfast on the 7th floor with a view across the city was a real bonus. Our first evening meal was to be at a popular restaurant – named the Hamburger Factory –  to help introduce us to life in this cosmopolitan city. So, tired but refreshed after showers, we headed off. Our only true hiccup in the holiday planning was that our restaurant booking had been moved to their alternative outlet on the edge of the city. This involved a long walk in the rain, but it was real testimony to the attitude of each girl and the positive team spirit that everyone just got on with it. The girls who could access google maps in Iceland helped us lead the way on this adventure – a special thank you must go to India and Ellie – and, once we found the restaurant, everyone demolished the food which they had undoubtedly earned. Treated to an ice cream to keep spirits up and a fleet of taxis to transport us all the way back to the hotel the girls could relax in their rooms and recover from an extremely busy day.

Our final day exploring Reykjavik, began with another rather wet and cold walk down the long promenade which usually offers spectacular views across the water, but was shrouded in mist. However, by now the team were used to ‘Mrs Buckley’s pace and determination’ and we arrived at Volcano House to watch the film of the Eyjafijallajokull eruption and the eruption on Heimaey. Both are real text book examples of the impacts of volcanic activity on Iceland and the spectacular detailed filming of the lives of the local communities gave a fascinating insight into the impact it had on their lives and the wonderful filming of the unique scenery made the effects all the more real. We all felt warm, if a little damp, in the cosy cinema. We then regrouped in the City Hall to see a large and impressive 3D model of Iceland, so we could appreciate how we had explored only the Southern tip but, as interested geographers, it helped everyone see how our adventure fitted together. The interviews and price comparison work we had planned was abandoned as the streets were empty of tourists due to the wet weather, so the girls had more free time to shop and buy hot chocolate and warm snacks in the quaint and quirky cafes of this small city centre.

We grouped again at Hallgrimskirkja, an imposing Church visible from 20km away. The party had enjoyed the lived experience of café life although any souvenir shopping was an expensive activity.

Understandably no one felt like braving the city’s geothermally heated pool as, even though the water is warmed, being out-doors with air temperatures down to 8°C with a strong wind chill it would not have created a relaxing end to our trip. We also had the World Cup England and Croatia match that evening to schedule in and at that point we all had great hopes. We organised an earlier starting time to our evening meal very close to the centre. It was called Caruso’s, a most delightful restaurant that we would recommend to any visitor. Our tables were fitted amongst the wooden rafters of the old building and the food was superb, plus our football enthusiasts were able to tell us England, at that early point, were in the lead. Then, conveniently, the rain stopped and we could watch the remainder of the match on the big screen in the city square. There were not many other England supporters but our party made up for this and quite a lot of people had gathered and gave it all the atmosphere we wanted. Undoubtedly, it felt more like being in a village square than that of a capital city. It was certainly a memorable way to watch a key World Cup match and end our holiday even if several of our party were very disappointed at the outcome!

We had a bit of a party once back at the hotel to cheer us all up and looked back on our action-packed visit and remembered those funny and happy moments, of which there were many. We could not have asked for a more positive, well-mannered and appreciative group of girls to join us on the trip. There was a lovely atmosphere and I must thank fellow teachers; Mrs Hamilton for her support throughout and Mrs Healey and Mrs Watson for being such enthusiastic and helpful companions to the girls and staff whilst in Iceland. We arrived back at Manchester and it was like stepping out onto the tarmac of a Mediterranean holiday destination … the heatwave was still enveloping our own island so our first job was to pack away the gloves and woolly hats!

Mrs Buckley (Head of Geography and Trip Leader)