Monty Halls in Iceland
I’m completely into Iceland at the moment. It’s partly because the series “Fortitude” is on tv - a somewhat bleak, surreal story of a remote community on an island that’s supposedly in Norway but was actually filmed in Iceland. It’s all soaring vistas, massive parka’s, fogged breath and sinister undertones. I must say it’s strayed firmly into the slightly weird territory of - I think, not entirely sure - a preserved woolly mammoth found in a glacier that is somehow infecting everyone with a virus that makes them go nuts and turn into fly incubation sites. I’m pretty sure that’s about the size of it, just another day in Northern Norway. There’s also a very hot waitress in it too, which helps for those baffled by pachyderm-related-maggot-crazy-person-infections-leading-to-murders-being-solved-by-an-American-detective-who-actually-came-from-London-to-solve-another-murder-of-a-Scottish-bloke-by-a-polar-bear-but-actually-it-was-the-town-policeman. Who, it turns out, didn’t do it anyway as it was someone called Henry. Who was his dad. Not the polar bears dad, the policeman’s dad. Who’s dead now anyway. Killed himself after shooting the American policeman who actually comes from London. I can imagine the final production meeting for this series, with the plot having been explained to the person paying for it who almost certainly said - “We’ll commission it if there’s a hot waitress. No waitress, no series. Your choice.” Anyway, it certainly showcases Iceland. You could fall in love with Iceland just from watching the bits between mammoth related mayhem, and very happily I got the chance to visit recently and blimey does the three-d version match up to what’s on my flatscreen - and then some. I was invited to go out to Iceland by Land Rover, as part of the launch of the new Discovery Sport. I had to the good fortune to be in the company of Ben Saunders (polar explorer extraordinaire - not heard of him? Well, I’d look him up immediately if I was you, a remarkable man) and the very, very coolly named Kenton Cool. Kenton is one of the premier high-altitude mountain guides on earth, has a greater percentage of success getting his clients to the top of Everest than anyone else, and is a very, very funny bloke. So all in all the company could not have been better. We were also accompanied by lots of journalists who we were going to host in various ruggsy tuggsy ways - snorkelling, trekking and climbing all over Iceland. Iceland and it’s people have carved an identity for themselves that is unique. There is more than the whiff of the Viking’s about them - they positively reek of adventure and it seems to me they would indulge in a spot of pillaging at the drop of a horny hat. They are clear skinned, long limbed elves, a gorgeous sub-species of the human race existing on a blasted lump of lava moored in the wild waters of the Atlantic. If I may continue the “hot waitress” theme (sorry) they are - almost all of them - staggeringly beautiful. The girl who stamped my passport was about nine feet tall and so blonde she was nearly transluscent. She gave me a halogen smile and was - I immediately decided - the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. It was only as we drove away from the airport, and I saw a few other people, that I realised she was only in the airport because compared to everyone else she was such a moose they’d given her a job there, as it meant they could put her in a booth and she’d be facing away from the rest of the population. In true Land Rover style we’d been lobbed the keys (or the fob, keys being somewhat vulgar in modern cars), and told to drive to a location 120 km away. This was fine, except that it was a white out of biblical proportions. I walked to the car park at 45 degrees through a wind so cold one of my ears snapped off, to be met by a cheerful chap who directed me towards one of the Discovery Sports parked up in neat lines (well, I’m assuming he was cheerful by the muffled greeting I heard through the massive furry parka hood he was wearing. And I’m assuming he was a chap as well). I set off, blissfully cacooned in the cathedral hush of the car, and soon we hit some proper weather. This made me realise that the stuff at the airport would probably be described as “a tad fresh” by the locals, but we were entering a storm that they might describe as “quite brisk”. This meant that the snow was hurtling past the windscreen horizontally in long white streaks, and I could just about see beyond the end of the bonnet. I drove like this for a while, my chin virtually on the steering wheel, eyes squinting as I chewed my lower lip. When I paused, which I did occasionally to peer in abject horror at the end of days scene around me, I could actually see snowdrifts forming on the side of the road. It was like watching a time-lapse of winter arriving in one of the BBC’s more lavishly funded documentaries. We were in a fleet of Discovery’s us journalists, snaking slowly upwards over a mountain road (I think we were going upwards, a conclusion I reached mainly because the coffee I’d spilled by the gear knob seemed to be heading towards the back of the car - I certainly couldn’t tell my looking out of the window). Eventually the inevitable happened, and we stopped. This was nothing to do with the capabilities of the car I hasten to add, it was due to the fact that a snowdrift the size of an iceberg had formed in the road. We were, essentially, doomed. I searched the car optimistically for something to sustain me before the inevitable “wee-drinking-shoe-eating” stage kicked in. All I could find was a bit of an old muffin in my pocket. And it was a skinny muffin. Even Shackleton couldn’t survive on just a skinny muffin for twelve hours - the outlook was bleak. But this was Land Rover we were dealing with, and sure enough a parka clad figure came stomping out of the gloom to tap on my window. I opened it and he bellowed something along the lines of “VEEF UND SCHNO PLEW KOMAK” before clumping off to tell the other cars. Where he came from, I’ve no idea, where he went, not a clue, but he was definitely called something like “Wolf Slayer” and he made me feel all lovely because I think he was saying that a snow plough was on its way. Soon a massive behemoth of a vehicle crashed through the drift, driven by his mate “Blood Axe”, and it led us all to a warm comfy place called Hotel 101 in Reykjavik. I’m not quite sure whether it was because I’d been busy scrawling a goodbye note on the dashboard, and appreciated the contrast, but the Hotel 101 was utterly wonderful. Go there immediately. The next morning dawned clear and bright, as if the previous night had been laid on specially by the Land Rover special effects department. We duly headed out to Silfra, where I would be taking the assembled journalists snorkelling between America and Europe. This isn’t quite as daunting as it sounds, as Silfra is one of the only spots on earth where you can actually jump into the gap between two tectonic plates. To do the jump you have to enter water that is a tad nippy, but as my guide “Raven Eye” pointed out, the visibility more than made up for it. This was to be the major challenge of the trip. To get twenty odd journalists into drysuits and then watch them skate their way to the entry point was something I viewed through the slits of my fingers from afar. If one had gone they all would, and given that the ground was at a slight angle, god only knows where they would have ended up. The motoring correspondent from Tatler would be spat out of an iceberg a thousand years from now. But the guides did a terrific job, and we all made it to the steps in one piece. How good is the visibility? Well, let’s just say that when you round the corner at the end of the snorkel, which is wonderful by the way, the platform to get out is 90 metres away. And you can see it underwater. It’s ludicrous, like snorkelling in Evian (albeit Evian with several ice cubes in it). It’s momentous. And much the same can be said for Iceland. I loved it - really, really loved it. In a world made up of the same type of holiday experiences, here is a place that’s truly different. It feels wild, elemental, un-tamed, and utterly mystical. To step off the road is to step back in time, to a place where the land itself gently smokes, where plants cling tenuously to black lava rocks, and where the people still have the faraway look of the sea dweller. It’s wilderness. Pure and simple. Oh, and I finally watched the last episode of Fortitude. They weren’t mammoth-hatched flies after all, they were wasps. And the hot waitress got shot, by the policeman. Henry’s boy. Who, it turns out, loved her all along, and only shot her to save the little girl that the hot waitress was in the process of snipping open with a pair of scissors. And then pretty much everyone died. Or will do shortly. In short, there was quite a lot going on, even right at the end. Perhaps though, the real star of the show was the land itself - wilder and more unpredictable than any drama set within it.