Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jökull of Snæfell, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the Kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth.
The time had come to leave the well-heeled and hip confines of the capital ‘city’, pick up my soon-to-be-beleaguered hire car and head out into the countryside. The aim for the first day, the first opportunity for me to unleash myself into the wild, was the Cornwall-shaped peninsula of Snæfellsness.
As with a lot of Iceland, the map showed not a lot going on. A handful of ‘towns’ - in Iceland, for town, read village or hamlet - mostly along the north coast. It was the first time I had had to worry about following signs; Google maps wasn’t going to pronounce them correctly. Stykkishólmur, Grundarfjörður, Ólafsvík, Eyja-og Miklaholtshreppur, Straumfjarðará.
And yet this part of the province, a stone’s throw from the capital, was considered one of the inhabited and cultivated parts of Iceland. What were the areas like then that were more deserted than this desert?
Jules Verne, that great French author who revolutionised the adventure genre, chose this 100km long finger of land, as the location of the entry point to the centre of the earth. In Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the story follows the eccentric and daring Professor Lidenbrock and his long-suffering and cowardly nephew Axel as they travel to Iceland in search of the gateway to a deeper realm. According to some runic study, they discovered that the entrance point was housed deep inside the Snæfellsjökull volcano way out at the far west end.
I wouldn’t have time to make my way to the far end of the peninsula; and anyway I had no plans to descend inside the volcano anyway, but a day driving around it leaves no doubt as to why he chose this place. There was, at times, an infernal beauty to the place. The ravaging caused by the eruption a couple of millennia ago has left its mark. This memory of long-lost volcanic carnage is very much the story of a lot of the island, though as would so often be pointed out, it wasn’t usually lost.
The road was fairly gentle coming north from Reykjavík; green fields peeling back to verdant cliffs half-hidden by pillowy clouds. At Straumfjarðará I huddled myself into a lonely and charming cafe-cum-petrol station - the Vegamót Snæfellsnesi - and ordered myself a blustery coffee before taking stock of my movements. It would be too far for me to re-enact Verne’s trip completely, if I were to hope to make my encampment for the day at the northerly fjord town of Hvammstangi. I had a tent with me, so my options were slightly limited to places accessible, large, and with facilities. Instead, I thought to myself as I crunched crackers covered with pickle, cheese, ham and sweet mustard (my lunch and dinner for the next fortnight), I’ll head north along route 56. It was a shame, but ultimately proved fortuitous.
The road started off attractive, rising to a high mountain plateau that looked like something Scottish had been wrenched from the British Isles and flung far north. There were rivers and lakes and craggy hills. So far so recognisable. But then everything went a bit more Icelandic. The first view to make me swear to myself came when I reached the body of water known as Selvallavatn. The lake appeared like a wide river with two banks; for the snaking nature meant its totality was hidden. Nearest my car was the green bank; graceful and Scottish as before. The far bank however was alien. The horizon was dominated by an ever-growing crescendo of rust-red, burnt-mauve, maroon and dark burgundy domes. They looked…wrong. Mountains and hills were supposed to follow the rules of green, grey or brown. But red?
This is the colour of geological violence. Red is always passion. Scoria, that volcanic rock that is produced in super-heated eruptions, can form beautiful cinder cones that add a touch of the martian to a landscape. From these cones at Selvallavatn, a long arm of frozen-in-time moss-covered lava cragged its way to the water’s edge: the Beserkjahraun.
The Beserkjahraun’s name is rooted in a Saga story. The Sagas of Iceland were historical prose family sagas predominantly based on historical events taking place in the country in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. History, genealogy, political squabbles, folklore, mystical hoo-doo, superstitions, rituals, pagan practices, and family law all come in to play in these classic example of Icelandic literature.
One such saga is the Eyrbyggja Saga, whose writer is anonymous and chiefly concerns itself with a feud between two strong Norse chieftains: Snorri Goði and Arnkel Goði. To quote the saga of Snorri: He was a very shrewd man with unusual foresight, a long memory and a taste for vengeance. To his friends he gave good counsel, but his enemies learned to fear the advice he gave.
Snorri’s counsel is reflected in a blood-soaked turn of events that apparently gave name to this lava field.
The year was 982, and Vermundur the Slim, a nearby farmer, had brought two Swedish berserkers to country called Halli and Leiknir. Vermundur was a rather meek farmer, yet his brother, with the grandiose name of Styr the Slayer, was a powerful and nasty man. Presumably Vermundur thought that having a few crazy Swedish warriors around would allow him to stand up to his brother more.
Beserkers were champion warriors who were famed for fighting in a trance-like fury and rage, often wearing only a bear skin instead of chain mail. Indeed, the word ‘berserker’ comes from the Old Norse ‘ber-serkr’, meaning bear-coat. If you are trying to look big and scary, it could pay to have a few legendary mad fighters at your side.
Unfortunately for Vermundur he couldn’t find enough for the berserkers to do to quell their constant rage and energy. So, somewhat pathetically, he asked his brother to take them off his hands. Styr, somewhat reluctantly, did so. The problem that Styr the Slayer now faced was that one of the crazed Swedes, Halli, had taken a shine to his pretty daughter. Having a berserker as a son-in-law wasn’t exactly what Styr had hoped for his daughter. So, not knowing exactly how to proceed in the face of amorous attentions from a berserker, went to seek advice, from Snorri Goði.
Armed with Snorri’s advice, Styr headed back home and proposed an idea to Halli. He told the berserkers that if they were able to clear a path through the lava field to his farm, so that he wouldn’t have to always spend so much time going round it, build a boundary fence across it and, because why not, erect a sheep pen as well, then he would give Halli his blessing for marriage. This, in theory, was to be an impossible task. Styr hadn’t banked on the speed and violence of the berserkers though. They, for wont of a better phrase, went berserk, and quite quickly went about completing the task. Styr was shocked and realised that it would soon be completed. He would have to give up his daughter to a mad warrior.
Whilst the Swedes went about smashing through the lava field, Styr prepared an underground sauna for them, covered it in wooden boards and left an opening so hot water could be poured down onto the stones to create steam. What a lovely thing to do.
The berserkers, finished their tasks and arrived back at the farm shattered and sweaty and in need of rest. Styr invited them to relax in their sauna. Of course, they had earned it and were glad of the offer so accepted. They got inside and started to luxuriate in the hot steam. Unbeknownst to them, Styr had put heavy boulders on the wooden covering slats. The Slayer then started to pour excessive amounts of boiling water into the hole. The heat increased and the berserkers started to scream and choke.
These were berserkers though; not even boulders could hold them. They broke free of the sauna but were too weak and weary to defend themselves from Styr the Slayer. Sneaky Styr had placed slippery and wet bull hides on the ground by the entrance just in case they broke free. They slipped and he slaughtered them. He buried the berserkers in a small depression in the lava field. From then on the lava field was given the moniker ‘Berserker lava field’: Berserkjahraun.
Today, there is a path that channels through the field. Was it made by berserkers? Furthermore, a modern excavation of the site were the bodies were apparently buried has resulted in the discovery of two large men. So, despite it sounding far fetched and almost Shakespearian, perhaps it was true.
My first stop after crossing the lava field was the Holy Mountain - Helgafell - where Styr had gone to find Snorri and ask for advice.
Out near the little harbour village of Stykkishólmur, is the 73m tall lonely lump of Helgafell. I almost missed it, for outwardly there’s not much interesting or enticing about it. It is essentially a mound with a small lake at its base and a cute church halfway up. It stands alone halfway up a scraped up and scarred bit of blustery headland. Helgafell was a case of good things come in small packages.
Since the time of the sagas, indeed as mentioned in the aforementioned one containing the murdered Swedes, Helgafell has been considered a Holy mountain; a gateway to the afterlife. Helgafell itself translates as ‘Hallowed Mountain’, there are the stone remains of an Augustine Monastery chapel on the summit and there is even the supposed grave of Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir; leading, and famously beautiful and long-lived, protagonist-turned-nun of the Laxdæla saga. So, in short, for such a diminutive bump there was a lot of history tied up in it. And it deserved my respect.
There are rules for climbing Helgafell:
- Find the grave of Guðrún and make a cross with your right hand.
- Clear your mind of bad thoughts and try to fill it only with good ones.
- Clean yourself and your face.
- Walk up the path without looking left, right, or behind you. Just straight ahead and up.
- Do not talk during the ascent.
- At the summit face east and, only if you have completed these prior steps, make three wishes. Only wishes for good.
I have to admit that I didn’t give myself a full body wash, but hoped the gods would be generous enough to allow my morning shower to count. It only took me about ten minutes to skip up the hillside, but the view was lovely. Wide green flats torn craggy at times by rock and leading all around to fuzzy mountains and broad lakes and vistas to the sea. The 360-degree angle made sense spiritually. With no immediate point of reference nearby, Helgafell felt much higher than it was, and, I suppose, closer to the heavens.
Standing up on the lonely peaks in Iceland - Helgafell being my first - one feels very connected to the historic tissue of the land. The lack of any real infrastructure or meaningful settlements anywhere adds a sense of the ancient, the isolated, the spiritual to a land already so steeped in it.
Despite Helgafell’s historic resumé, it wasn’t going to win any awards in the beauty department. Down the road however - 40km west, deeper into the peninsula - was Iceland’s most photographed peak. Kirkjufell: Church Mountain.
This part of the peninsula had a whiff of the Scandinavian about it. Sitting in the crux of a wide bay was the very pretty little village - pre-fab colourful box houses, small spiky church - of Grundarfjörður. At the start of the 19th century French merchants came to the country and a lot of them set up shop in the village; building houses and the church. Grundarfjörður was, back in its day, a rather important fishing village. These days felt more like a buzzing village you’d find on the south coast of England full of camp grounds and rentable cabins. The village is squished between the sea and a mountain range dripping with late snow and waterfalls.
I, as was often the case in Iceland, stopped my car in a gravel park at the base of the mountain, and crossed the road towards the neighbouring waterfall of Kirkjufellsfoss to get a better look. Here was the view, the famous snap. A small double cascade beginning with a stubby little rock face, maybe five metres high, was spurting out a noisy selection of streams. In itself the waterfall was nothing special, but heading uphill, over a bridge and down the other side of it you realise why the point has been so heavily snapped.
The waterfall pounding into the pool below acted as a foreground to the pointed hulk of Kirkjufell. Viewed side on from Grundarfjörður it appears a sail, but from across the water of the falls it rises to a striated pyramid-like peak kissed by drifting cloudlets and swarming with sea birds catching whatever half-hearted Arctic thermal they might find there.
Even though the light in summer was never ending, I had been moving around the peninsula for hours and was still quite a way from the day’s destination: almost 200km away. Now, that distance on a well-laid motorway in most countries wouldn’t take very long. The problem with Iceland is two-fold:
- The roads are either sub-standard, gravel-roads, off-road roads or non-existent.
- The desire to stop every fifteen minutes to take a photo of something mind-numbing is so strong that it can easily add hours to a short journey.
After rounding the rather handsome Álfta fjord - split up by gloomy clouds, sunbeams and shining water - routes 54 and 59 east to the Hrútafjörður turned the drama and isolation up a notch. The number of cars I passed went down to about one or two an hour, the road turned to a concentration-needing line of gravel and loose sheep, and the coastline was churned up into a limpid pool full of small islands, ship wrecks and occasional farms and solitary churches.
Then came a late afternoon sun throwing honey-gold over the gentle rolling fields and fjords near Hvammstangi. Brown Icelandic horses, always plucky and friendly, greeted me in the wind as I surveyed a landscape worthy of Constable. Hrútafjörður: the gentler and mellow side of Iceland; wedged between the bestial volcanic violence to the east and the Vernian gateways and Berserker-lands to the west.
For the rest of the day I strolled through dewy-dusk fields full of proud purple lupins and contemplated Snæfellsness. I would later see things in Iceland that could easily pass for Centre of the Earth candidature, but for now, after my first day’s drive, all I had was this peninsula.
As Jules Verne wrote back in 1871 it was ‘A peninsula rather like a bare bone, with an enormous kneecap at the end.’ and ‘whose remnants testified to the violence of the past’. Snæfellsness was a foreshadowing, a frozen-in-time geological history book of the country’s seismic danger. The coming days would should me nature, raw and alive, bubbling and simmering dangerously. But now I contended my ignorance with a day of wondrous voyaging around a most indicative place: Iceland in miniature.