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Destination: Iceland

A land that runs hot and cold

The far-north country is marked by lava and glaciers on ground that is slowly but surely shifting. Here, elves don't seem so outlandish.

September 12, 2004|Margo Pfeiff | Special to The Times

Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Iceland — "Do I believe in elves?" Sveinki repeated my question. Tap, tap, tap, he knocked the ash from his pipe on a chunk of lava. He had done this so often during our four days of hiking together that it had become a comforting soundtrack to our trip.

We were leaning against our backpacks, sipping Danish coffee and eating butter cookies in the sun on the shore of a lake within Tjarnargigur crater.

"I believe they are an early form of urban legend," he said slowly in the tone of the professor that he is, "or a graphic means of passing on to the next generation local dangers, like wells that have gone bad and such." Then he gazed across the landscape, shrugged and hedged his bets: "But you never know."

Tap, tap, tap.

Iceland certainly looks as though it could be Elf, Troll and Fairy Central.

Sveinki and I were surrounded by large pillows of spongy moss that draped grotesque outcroppings of lava. A surreal shade of neon-green grass grew everywhere in exuberant tufts, even on the rooftops of rustic mountain huts. Damp caves provided entrances to tunnels that once ran red with liquefied lava. In some places the ground smoked or sputtered up geysers. Rivers reeked of sulfur. Every year, volcanoes punch holes through the country's icecaps in eruptions of ice and fire, and hundreds of earthquakes rattle Icelandic bones. With all that, the possibility of imps with pointy ears and mischievous intent seems plausible.

It was late August and Sveinn Helgi Sverrisson -- nicknamed "Sveinki" -- and I were hiking through the lava fields spewed by Mt. Laki's craters in south-central Iceland. Afterward, I would join a group for a week of short treks in remote wilderness national parks and reserves in southern Iceland.

I met Sveinki in the village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur (pronounced Keer-kee-byer-closter), a six-hour bus trip from Reykjavik, the capital. About 80% of Iceland's 290,000 people live in or near the capital, and four-fifths of the island is too rough to be habitable; it's an ideal combination for those who like to hike and climb.

Encircling a rugged interior of glaciers and three massive icecaps, moon-like lava landscapes and craggy peaks is the Ring Road; a fleet of excellent public buses regularly travels the 900-mile paved route. Sturdy four-wheel-drive versions even tackle the wild tracks of Iceland's interior on a timetable.

The buses accommodate the desires of sightseers and hikers, pausing for photo ops and dropping and picking up passengers at waterfalls, roadside shops, historic farms and gas stations. If you want to go hiking without a guide, you have only to ask the bus driver to stop and then head off into the wilderness. When you're ready to return to civilization, all you have to do is wait beside the road and flag down one of the next buses that comes along; they run in both directions several times a day in summer.

Even gas stations are out of the ordinary in Iceland. Because there are few towns along the Ring Road, Esso stations are the local grocery store, outdoor supplier and cafe. They carry items as disparate as headlamps and stacks of thin, dried salted cod, which local kids love topped with a dollop of butter. The cafes offer such surprising dining possibilities as creamy seafood chowder with homemade bread for a bargain $7 or sauteed fish, scallops, freshly baked pastries and caffeinated beverages, including espresso and latte.

The morning after arriving in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, I waited in my hotel lobby for the rest of my hiking group, for a four-day trip I had arranged with World Expeditions, a tour company. A single, fit, balding gentleman with a pipe was the only other person there. He introduced himself as Sveinki. "I am your guide, and I am the group," he said.

The other hikers had canceled at the last minute, so it would be just the two of us. A driver dropped us halfway up a dirt road, and we headed into the Laki lava fields, following a chain of craters that, from 1783 to 1785, erupted 2.9 cubic miles of molten rock to create one of the world's most extensive lava fields. An accompanying plume of toxic gases wiped out one-quarter of Iceland's 100,000 population.

During the last 500 years, Iceland's 200 active volcanoes have belched up one-third of Earth's lava. It is one of the world's youngest countries, geologically speaking, sitting atop a split in the Earth's crust along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where two tectonic plates are moving in opposite directions; the eastern part of the country is inching ever closer to Europe while the west moves toward Greenland. The last eruption was in 2000.

Hiking wasn't difficult in the treeless landscape, but I had to be mindful of where I stepped because the rough lava rocks made for unsteady walking as they chewed at my hiking boots. In places with the thick moss blanketing the lava I felt as if I were walking across a field of down pillows.

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