September 24, 2009

my saga

I've been doing some writing: my rather contentious latest Maisonneuve column, What's Wrong With Africa, and my debut Wired UK blog post, From Dragons To Smartphones.

I've been doing some programming, and the BBC (among others) has a nice writeup of the project I'm working on.

I've also been doing some travelling, in Iceland, which is a good place to contemplate the infernal:


See, they even provide a bench.

Mine very own Icelandic saga:

Two days ago I travelled through flickers of sunlight


to the site of the world's oldest parliament


as told in the sagas. (The history/folk tales that all Icelanders know. Their language has changed so little that they can still read the sagas in the original. I haven't read any, myself - though I am eyeing the collected English-language version sold in all the bookstores here - but I get the distinct impression from my Lonely Planet that the Iceland of the sagas was an extremely bloody place, and that appearing in one pretty much guaranteed a drastically shortened lifespan.)

From there I went to Kerio Crater


and to Geysir and its sulfurous vapours of hell.

Before, during, after.


I wasn't even going to go to the waterfalls at Gullfoss. I thought to myself, "I've seen lots of waterfalls, I was at Iguazu just this year, really, why bother?" But it wasn't far away, and according to my Lonely Planet the cafe there served excellent lamb soup. "Lamb soup!" I thought, and headed thataway.

The soup wasn't all that.

The basalt falls, though -





A Japanese couple were having their wedding photos taken. (Or possibly even getting married - from my distance I couldn't tell.)


I followed the road, which roughly paralleled the gorge -


- off tarmac, into gravel, pitted and potholed and cratered and gouged.


But my trusty Skoda steed was a match for it, and the views were worth the grief.


Eventually I made my way to the lonely Atlantic, and rested there for the night.


Yesterday morning I advanced through Iceland's green-and-gold bowls and meadows, which still seem like deserts thanks to the almost total absence of trees; past the endless vast ridges of dark, upswept volcanic rock, and the frozen rivers of jagged lava stained with green moss; towards the snow-capped mountains


of the Snaefellsnes peninsula.
The road beckoned ever onwards


past fjords marked with layer-cake mountains


towards the brooding storms of the Atlantic.


Past Iceland's tallest structure, a NATO radar tower


to Snaefellsnes itself, the very mountain where Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth begins. Conveniently, the clouds parted just long enough to give me a glimpse:


Alas, that shortcut to Stromboli is blocked by ice, so I continued past lava flows


and natural amphitheatres.


It's times like this that part of you can't help but wonder about the wisdom of travelling to remote destinations utterly alone. "What if," part of my mind wondered just after snapping that shot (note my trusty Skoda far below), "I fell and broke my leg here? I've seen all of two cars in the last hour, and that was on the main road half a kilometre away, and there's a storm coming..."

Then I checked my phone and saw to my amazement that it boasted a bar of coverage. Ah well. A man can dream.

The storm returned shortly afterwards, and fought a running duel with the sun


until Sol emerged victorious, and shone greedily on those lonely guardians who watch the uttermost West


while the storm retreated to its fastness in the heights.


I returned to my trusty steed


and then to the very mountains I saw earliest in the day.


Halfway back to Reykjavik I had a bizarre and unsettling experience. A farmhouse stood on the left - I forget its name. (Iceland is so thinly populated that every farm has its own road sign.) Two teenage girls in hunter-orange overalls stood on either side of the road. A few sheep were making their way along the ditch to the left, but if there had been any real herding going on, it was over. A kid of about eight rushed along that ditch. Nothing particularly unusual so far.

Further along the road, a woman walked casually along its leftmost edge, while a man strode along the ditch on the right, holding some kind of long, thin, walking-stick-like implement - a golf club? a shepherd's crook? As I approached, he stepped up onto the road. Leapt, really, with intent. He didn't so much as turn his head my way, but I was travelling at the speed limit, 90 km/h, he would had to have been stone-deaf not to notice my approach.

I made the split-second decision that swerving around him was a better idea than braking to a stop at that rapidly diminishing distance. As I did so, he turned towards me. I caught a momentary glimpse of a dangerously lean man with a scraggly dark beard, his face twisted with fury, with rage, as he took a step towards the car swerving around him at 90kph and raised his stick-thing high, as if to strike. I can't be sure, but I think he actually did swing at my car as I passed. (And missed.)

When I glanced in my rearview mirror I saw the woman walking along the edge hold her hand up towards me, as if to say "stop", or in apology. I'm guessing the latter from her body language. She didn't halt, though, or turn to say anything to him. He stood in the middle of the road, glaring.

I have no idea what that was about. Anyway, despite the best attempts of that dude right out of a saga, I made it back to Reykjavik without anyone getting maimed, and without denting my trusty Skoda, despite the best attempts of this country's roundabouts and steep heavy-highway-traffic hill starts. (Do I remember how to drive a stick? Why, it's just like riding a bike! Except with more stalling.)

Today I returned to Toronto, and en route to Keflavik Airport, stopped off at the famous Blue Lagoon:


which was a fine way to say farewell, for now, to the uttermost North. (Reykjavik is on approximately the same latitude as Nome.)