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Tracing viking footsteps

The following is taken from my broadcast on Believe It or Not, Talk Radio 702 and Cape talk 567 on Sunday May 31 2008.

I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland, since studying the language of Old Norse at university. Old Norse was the language of the Vikings and is still spoken with hardly any change in the same way it was when Iceland’s first Viking settler built his farmstead in ad 874 and named it Reykjavik – meaning ‘smoky bay’. The name comes from the steam that rises from many geothermal springs in what is now the heart of Reykjavik – the world’s northernmost capital.

I flew from Johannesburg on May 29 and spent the next day and night in London – one vast building site.hop-on, hop-off buses – Regent St, Piccadilly, Haymarket (theatre tickets at R2 000 a pop), Trafalgar Square (Nelson’s Column), Whitehall (Downing Street, Big Ben and the Cenotaph), on to the south bank of the Thames (London Eye, Tate Modern Gallery, Globe Theatre) , Covent Garden, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London over Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Victoria Station, Mayfair and Park Lane, Hyde Park with its famous Hyde Park corner and up to Marble Arch. And with your bus ticket you get a free river cruise down the Thames and can join a couple of walking tours like the royal London walk which includes the changing of the guard, and ‘ghosts by gaslight’ – a trip to a haunted tube station, with dimly-lit alleyways where Sweeny Todd and Jack the Ripper carried out their foul deeds.

I cruised to Iceland on the Discovery, a gracious old lady of a ship which became my home from home.

My journey took me first to the Shetland Isles, the home of Shetland ponies, and a place where sheep outnumber people. Lerwick, the capital, is the most northern town in Great Britain. Shetland is an archipelago of more than 100 islands, although only 15 of these are inhabited. Mainland – the biggest island – is only 909 square km in size and home to 8 000 people. It was settled in the 17th century but was originally named ‘ler vik’ by the Vikings, which means ‘muddy bay’ in Old Norse.

The 16th-century fortress – Fort Charlotte – that guards Lerwick, makes an interesting contrast to the oil refinery and oil rigs which characterise the northern end of the island. These remote islands are today one of the wealthiest parts of the UK. Shetlanders are rich thanks to the discovery of North Sea oil during the 1970s. Shetland earns a royalty from every barrel of oil sold, which goes into a trust fund for use by the community to build schools, hospitals and community centers. Both young and old benefit from this community upliftment, with old-age homes and retirement villages built adjacent to schools.

I took a trip to Jarlshof – one of the UK’s most important archaeological sites – because it represents waves of settlement from the Bronze Age, through the Viking era (a 40-year period from 850 AD to 1250 AD) and medieval times, to the present.

The Vikings

When they were not on the high seas, en route to plunder new territories, fierce Viking warriors were farmers and fishermen, who made stone tools. However, their prowess as seafarers is legendary, since they sailed all the way to Newfoundland in Canada.

In Lerwick the streets are reminiscent of this regal era, with names like King Eric Street and King Herald Street. There are many grey stone houses and lots of churches, but few congregations to fill them.

Small crafting villages nestle on narrow peninsulas never far from the inlets of the sea. Typically they feature Shetland ponies, fat sheep and lambs, green hills, primroses, low mountains, the ubiquitous sea and peat bogs where the islanders still cut their own peat. Shetlanders are a fiercely independent people, which brings to mind a story I heard about Solly and Ruby and Bob and Janice, who met in Southampton during the war, but were all original Shetlanders. After the war they returned to their home island and have stayed there ever since. Ruby’s mother is now 96, yet she has never left Shetland.

Our ship went first to the northern part of Iceland – I crossed the Arctic Circle and was awarded a certificate by the captain to prove it. We spent a day and night at sea crossing the Arctic Circle where there is no sunrise and no sunset. It is strange to the sun shining above the horizon at midnight.

Iceland itself is home to dramatic volcanic craters, lava lakes and majestic waterfalls – truly a ‘land of fire and ice’. US astronauts trained in this moon-like barren landscape in preparation for space exploration. Iceland sits between two tectonic plates – the Atlantic plate and the Eurasian plate. The Atlantic plate stretches west to the Rockies; the Eurasian plate stretches east to the Himalayas. These two massive shelves are continually separating (at the rate of 2cm a year) which results in many earthquakes. Evidence of volcanic eruptions is everywhere, with lava fields ranging from 300 to 3 000 years old. Iceland is still forming and, on average, every five years there’s another volcanic eruption. There’s one little church, which at some point was surrounded by a red-hot lava flow, that now stands out on a tiny island surrounded by hardened lava fields.

Icelanders all live along the shores of their country, which comprises 10% ice and glaciers – the interior of Iceland is uninhabited. Icelanders don’t see the sun for two months – from mid-November to mid-January. During the remainder of the year, the weather is fickle, lending credence to the saying,  ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change’. Average summer temperatures reach 15ºC, and in winter it’s just below freezing. Houses often have corrugated iron protecting their walls and roofs are made from grass.

A few thousand people still follow the Old Norse religion, but most Icelanders are Lutheran.

Our first port of call in Iceland was Akureyri. It’s located on the northern side of Iceland, just 100km from the Arctic Circle, and was originally settled by Vikings in the 9th century. Iceland’s first settler was a Viking by the name of Ingolfur Arnarson. Other settlers arrived during the early 17th century and today there are only 16 000 inhabitants, many of whom are employed in local fisheries. Although Akureyri is surrounded by rich farming country, there are hardly any trees to be seen on the landscape.

As we approach the coast, a chill wind is blowing, but the sun is sparkling off the pewter-grey sea and glinting off the snowcaps of mountains which line the fjord. Seen from the ship, the town presents a mass of brightly painted houses, ice-covered mountains and there are lupins growing everywhere. In between the snow, green patches of hillside can be seen, but they’re also devoid of trees. In the past humankind, the weather, sheep and volcanic ash have prevented trees from rooting or growing, but today Icelanders plant more trees than any other nation in the world.

During the long hard winters, animals are kept inside. In summer one-and-a-half million sheep are herded on horseback up the mountains, only to be brought down again in autumn. An average farm will have 60 milking cows, and a large one, 100 milking cows. There are only 300 000 people living in Iceland and two-thirds of them live in the capital, Reykjavik. By law all Icelanders must learn to swim, so schools are equipped with geo-thermal pools which are responsible for the clouds of steam which dot the green-and-black landscape.

Iceland is also renowned for the many birds which spend winter there. It is estimated that there are four to five million puffins alone on the islands surrounding its coast. For more than 900 years the horse was the only means of transport and there are now 80 000 Icelandic horses and they have five gaits (still pure bred). They’re often seen galloping with tails flying amid green fields and yellow marsh marigolds. These are sturdy, small horses with short legs,  once crucial as a means of transport and working farm horses, but today mostly used for recreational purposes.

Predictably, the variety of wildlife found in such an extreme environment is limited, with arctic foxes and an occasional polar bear making up numbers. During the 18th century reindeer were imported from Norway, but today they number around 12 000, so hunting is permitted.

Icelandic culture abounds with supernatural beings – trolls are big and ugly and live in the highlands, while diminutive elves live in stones.

Godafoss is known as ‘the waterfall of the gods’. Here in the year 1 000, Thorgeir, law-speaker of the Old Icelandic parliament (the oldest in the world) threw down his carvings of the Old Norse gods – Wodin, Freya and Thor) in a public declaration that Iceland would be a Christian nation from then on. Gullfoss waterfall is found in an area filled with active geysers including Strokkur, which spouts an 18-m high column of hot water every eight minutes.

It’s a magnificent lava landscape, with spectacular scenery. I visit a geo-thermal field with its constantly bubbling sulphur pits, boiling mud pools and steam vents. Boiling springs and fumeroles make it one of the most active volcanic areas in Iceland. It’s interesting to note that 90% of all Icelandic houses are heated by hot water coming from the ground.

The locals cook ‘geyser bread’ by popping the dough into a hole in the ground, leaving it overnight, and in the morning removing a freshly baked loaf. Reykjavik has a beautiful church with stained glass windows that came from Coventry Cathedral. Lake Myvatn boasts more than 17 types of duck, more than anywhere else in world, including mallards, golden eyes and eider ducks – it also offers very good salmon fishing. In the best salmon-fishing rivers, a daily license costs nearly R2 500!

Fellow passengersPam the policewoman who moved ‘from handbag and truncheon, to pepper spray and gun in 18 years’, two classics teachers, newly weds of six months (the lady had been married before for 67 yrs!), John Brocklehurst the captain (who has a brother in Bryanston), a couple from Port Elizabeth, a young archaeologist and his dad, and superb lecturers, geologists, ornithologists, artists and fellow adventurers … and superb food.

What will I remember of Iceland?

  • The people
  • The surreal landscape of black lava, rolling green hills, no trees, snow-capped mountains, brightly painted houses, steam rising from the ground, the cold wind…
  • Its fascinating history
  • The midnight sun. From my notes just after midnight standing on the deck as we plough through the north Atlantic … ‘sun just setting over western horizon. Pewter-grey sea, grey sky, pale yellow sun, sky streaked with pale pink and yellow’
  • The land of fire and ice…

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About

Kate Turkington is one of South Africa’s best-known broadcasters, travellers and travel writers.

Her weekly Sunday night three-hour live Talk Radio 702 / CapeTalk talkshow, Believe It Or Not, which came to an end in early 2013 was South Africa’s longest-running radio talkshow with the same host in the same time slot. She continues to broadcast as a regular guest on travel shows where she talks about the when, where, why, what and how of travel both locally and internationally from her vast personal experience. She also blogs for several travel websites.

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