Harry Strawson won a four-day trip to Iceland in the short break category of the 2012 competition – and the northern lights and killer whales alike did their bit to make the trip a memorable one
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A man called Helgi was charged with collecting us in Reykjavik and delivering us to Grundarfjördur, in the west of Iceland. He turned to face his British passengers before looking back at the road and remarked casually that Reykjavik airport had never been closed as a consequence of bad weather.
Helgi, it soon became apparent, had almost single-handedly held Iceland together over the years. We drove through a village he had connected to Iceland’s national grid, along a strip of coast where he had been engaged as a coastguard, over a mountain pass where he had broken down one winter night as a lorry driver, and past an aluminium smelting plant where, naturally, he had once been employed. And now Helgi, already to my mind the most important man in Iceland, was my guide for the next week.
A few hours later in Grundarfjördur the sky burst into life. The stage-shy northern lights had taken to the upper air and were performing their magic act. Blades of green cut through the sky in a wide arch, then convened, flowing from one shape to another without ever seeming to move. I stood there and watched – and even Helgi stopped talking. For a moment, anyway.
In the northern reaches of Scandinavia the Sami people believed that if you whistled beneath the northern lights you could coax them closer, and that they could sweep you away with them into the night sky. Helgi started whistling. Others had thought the lights were the glinting weapons of fallen Viking warriors ascending to heaven. In Finnish folklore a mythical fox once swept his tail across the snow, spraying it upwards into the night sky.
The next morning I was on a boat cutting through grey water while the sun climbed over the mountains to the east, the low rays staining the snowy summits pink and setting the sea alight with streaks of gold. We were looking for orcas. Before long a spray of water and vapour burst through the glassy surface and a black bulk breached the water. Tall black fins emerged, sometimes six feet tall, and a moment later whales were on either side of the boat. Helgi, now a marine biologist, reeled off facts: with a 50-80 year lifespan they are found in every ocean in the world.Nungwi Village
Helgi also led us around Iceland’s Snæfellsnes peninsula, guiding the bus along a road hewn through the Berserkjahraun lava field, enclosed on either side by spires of volcanic rock.
A thousand years ago two berserkers (old Norse warriors) had forged a path through this lava. Both in love with a girl that one had hoped to marry, they were set this herculean task by a jealous father. The two men promptly forged their way through the rock, but were murdered for their efforts. Trapped in a hot spring while they recovered from the work, they were left to drown or burn to death. Their bodies are buried here, Helgi concluded, with a sweeping gesture before turning back to the road.
Beside lava fields and berserkers, Snæfellsnes is a series of volcanoes set against waterfalls and glaciers, enclosed by cliffs and beaches. The peninsula is reworked each day by changing weather. That day stony clouds dipped and hugged the horizon. I walked along a coastal cliff where the sea shuddered against the rocks and flung foam high into the air, dusting the clifftop with salt spray. The cliffs gave way to beaches of black volcanic sand that seemed to stain the water black.
It isn’t difficult to imagine Iceland emerging from the ocean – as it did 20m years ago – a crowd of volcanoes spitting lava, locked in fierce battle with theNungwi Village
ocean. There are 130 volcanoes in Iceland, said Helgi proudly. The year he was born (1963) the Surtsey volcano erupted, and didn’t stop for four years. Iceland itself was announcing his arrival.
Helgi’s narrative swept over Snæfellsnes and instilled the surrounding country with a mystic grandeur. He gestured again with his arm while he explained that here two ley lines meet, and that they connect Snæfellsnes to pyramids in Egypt and to Machu Picchu. He lowered his voice and added that the area had long been associated with Iceland’s mysterious hidden people, and briefed us on the secrets of the Icelandic midwinter festival Thorrablot (from 14 January to 14 February in 2014).
The festival is centred – like most festivals – on eating and on drinking. Except Icelanders eat hákarl – shark meat that has been left to rot for up to three months and hung to dry for several more – and drink brennivín, an eye-watering spirit cheerfully dubbed “black death”. That night Helgi, naturally, produced a bottle. I asked about the shark meat but he simply shook his head and grinned.
The rest of the week unfolded and I saw more whales and different-coloured northern lights and sunrises, each time as though for the first. But Iceland’s best-known treat was held back for the final hours of the trip. My last moments there were spent like many of the others, among lava fields and under a snowy sky. Only now I was squinting through hot steam and splashing happily in silty water.
The Blue Lagoon really is blue.
• This escorted four-night Killer Whales and Northern Lights trip to Iceland was provided by Discover The World (01737 214252, discover-the-world.co.uk). It costs from £869pp without flights (or from £1,121 with Icelandair flights from Heathrow, Glasgow or Manchester), including local transport, half-board hotel accommodation, two whale watching boat trips, a day tour of Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and entrance to the Blue Lagoon. Departures from January to March 2014 (plus special departures for Christmas and New Year)
• Read Harry’s winning entry for the 2012 competition here