Roof insulation Iceland style

Warren and Marita Jowett are Staveley locals with a passion for history, architecture, nature and art. Bitten by the travel bug later in life, they now enjoy yearly trips overseas exploring areas that fuel their love of their interests, often returning to those special places they have come to adore. This is a recollection from their June/July 2015 travels to Iceland, Shetland, Orkney, Scotland, and Wales which they kindly shared with essence contributor, Megan McConville.

It’s a wonderful feeling to fly halfway around the world and end up in a country that so closely evokes your own. Marita was kind enough to set me loose in Iceland for a photography workshop before she was to join me in Glasgow two weeks later. The tour, made up of all Kiwis, was organised by Rob Brown Photography. We landed in this very foreign country, yet, after stepping off the plane at Keflavik international airport, we nearly felt like we were still at home. Iceland is an interesting country that is a lot like New Zealand. It is an independent, island nation in the middle of the ocean whose landscape was predominantly determined by volcanic activity. Its friendly people and spectacular scenery bring to mind the people and scenery of home. It is a very well-educated place, with one-third of its population holding university degrees. And while we were not fooled (the Icelandic language is terribly difficult to understand and their mountains aren’t nearly as jagged as ours), it is a beautiful country much like our own.

Due to the winter’s exceptional amount of snowfall, our tour had to be slightly modified to avoid the heavily inundated area of the Highlands and instead travel around the west coast. While we were slightly disappointed by the diversion, Iceland itself never disappointed. The magnificent landscape ensured that we were kept in awe every mile of our drive. Where New Zealand has beautiful glaciers, Iceland has incredibly impressive glaciers. Perhaps living up to its name, 11% of the country is still covered by permanent ice. Such an abundance of ice helps account for the amazingly tall, powerful, remarkable waterfalls dotted throughout the country. In fact, Iceland is home to Dettifoss, which is the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe. As a result, hydro-electricity is a major power source for the country.

As we travelled along Highway 1, a major roadway that goes right around the island, we noticed another similarity to New Zealand – braided rivers. Iceland has many vast, braided rivers, much larger than those here at home. For the most part, these waterways are weed-free, impressively expansive areas of black basalt plains. However, in an effort to stabilise the ground in areas along the coast, the Icelandic people planted lupines. While still a weed, the vibrant colours of the lupines against the black basalt make for striking scenery.

As with most countries with high levels of volcanic activity, Iceland has a large amount of thermal activity. Natural hot pools and geysers are dotted throughout the nation, drawing large numbers of tourists to soak in the warm, blue waters and gaze in awe at erupting geysers. I personally prefer destinations that are off the beaten track, free of the large throngs of touristy crowds, but even so, the beauty of Landmannalauger was not lost on me. A tourist mecca, this area is a hotspot for more than just its high geothermal activity. The sparkling blue water set against the volcanic rock in the gateway to the Highlands all makes for a stunningly beautiful place. While the pools weren’t all that hot for our visit, being that the thaw had only just started, it did not take away from the splendour of the area.

One of my favourite stops on the tour was down a dead-end road along Borgarfjorour on the east coast, one of the many fjords in Iceland. The road ended in Bakkageroi, a small, quiet village that had a New Zealand-like feel to it. The people were friendly and welcoming, it was free from the tourist crowd and, as a pleasant surprise, it is home to many birds, including puffins and kittiwakes, of which I am very keen on photographing. The village was so endearing that if I can ever convince Marita to return to Iceland, that is where I would take her.

One of the most notable qualities of Iceland was how fantastically simple it was to travel around. As we had rented cars, we drove everywhere. Iceland is an incredible accessible country. Their roads are well maintained and ingeniously designed with the climate in mind; due to the large amount of snowfall they receive, the roads are built quite high off the ground, making it easier for the graders to clear after snowstorms.

In Reykjavik, the nation’s capital, I visited the national museum. It is quite special, somewhat akin to Wellington’s Te Papa, and does an excellent job of putting Iceland’s interesting history on display. Settled by the Vikings, I learned how Iceland became the world’s first democracy. Though I expected more from Reykjavik architecturally, the museum itself, as well as the Skalholt Cathedral, was well worth the visit.

We had seen so many things, the time flew by. It was hard to believe my two week expedition of Iceland had come to an end, but my travels were far from over. With the stunning, friendly, fascinating country now holding a special place in my heart, I boarded a plane to Glasgow, ready to meet Marita for our next round of adventures.