Category Archives: Iceland

Resilience in Iceland

My trip to Iceland was a journey through the island’s past. I was well acquainted with the Sagas, set in the period just after Settlement, from about 900 to 1050 AD, which described a prosperous landscape. I knew that deforestation quickly became a problem and Icelanders avoided the fate of their relatives in Greenland by a very small margin.*

One of my first stops was the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik. This museum has been built over an excavated longhouse from the Saga days. Its inhabitants enjoyed Iron Age luxury in their spacious ‘hvoll’ surrounded by natural abundance.

Following the prosperity of the early days came the Little Ice Age which began in the 1300s and lasted nearly six centuries. The trees cut for firewood, building and smelting iron didn’t grow back. The topsoil was lost and barley cultivation ceased. The fjords filled with ice; the fishing boats rotted on the strand with no wood for repairs.

There wasn’t even enough firewood to boil seawater for salt, essential for preserving food through the long winters. Luckily cows were able to survive, presumably living on seaweed and lichens like the people, and there was plenty of whey left over from butter making. The Icelanders expanded traditional techniques of preserving meat in lactic acid.

There was no clay for making pots, no iron to repair pans. People used the volcanic springs to steam food wrapped in cloth, dug pits in hot sand. Icelandic cuisine became desperately inventive.

The climate change was compounded by hostile political conditions and by the Black Death in 1402. The population fell from 60,000 to 20,000. Then there was the Skaftáreldar eruption in 1783, which poisoned large areas of grassland.

As Europe began to prosper again, there was a market for the fine woollen goods from Iceland – the sheep had survived too, and just as well as there were no fibre crops for cloth or ropes. Finally permitted to prosper from their own trade, the Icelanders invested in boats. Their fishing fleet was revived; technology trickled in from the Industrial Revolution.

Then electricity was invented! Icelanders swiftly caught on to the potential of renewable and volcanic energies. Huge greenhouses now provide all the vegetables they need for domestic consumption, and extensive reforestation is progressing. Recycling is taken seriously. So is trashing the countryside with off road vehicles.

You’ll find a great respect for the land among Icelanders. It nearly killed them. If you visit this paragon of resilience, don’t pretend you know what you’re doing. Hire locals to show you around, especially in winter!

 

*There’s a poignant description of the fate of one group of Greenland Vikings in ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond.  This is one of the recommended books in the Resilience Handbook…reading is a good activity in the winter!

There’s still time to order a signed copy of the Resilience Handbook before Xmas – email me after you’ve placed your order if you want it signed to another name!

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Iceland Adventure

In the Resilience Handbook, I recommend going on regular adventures.  Travel by a method you don’t normally use, go to somewhere different.  It doesn’t have to be exotic – a week in a campsite is just as good for your resilience.  As a solo traveller, I prefer to use hostels.  They’re cheap, you can self-cater, and you meet interesting people in the communal areas.

The confidence I gained by hostelling around Britain enables me to explore further afield on a limited budget.  I did some research and packed appropriate clothes; there was very little I didn’t actually use.   Even an 18 kilo suitcase was a serious handicap on public transport though; it may be worth while paying the extra to fly from a closer airport next time.

Why Iceland?  With its renewable energy and reforestation programme, it’s an ideal destination for the resilience explorer!  I’ve got extensive notes to go over, and a return trip is already on the cards.  I never did get a recipe for putrefied shark – but I know the history behind it now.

Here’s some pictures

iceland old harbour
The Old Harbour is quite industrial around the bus stop – then you walk round the corner and see the bay open out towards the sharp snowy hills
My kind of tour bus! Off into the wilds for the 'Game of Thrones' tour. Winter driving in Iceland is challenging; use tours, not car rental.
My kind of tour bus! Off into the wilds for the ‘Game of Thrones’ tour. Winter driving in Iceland is challenging; use tours, not car rental.
The landscape north of Reykjavik from the tour bus - there was a strong wind that day, whipping the powdery snow up into a white out later on!
The landscape north of Reykjavik from the tour bus – there was a strong wind that day, whipping the powdery snow up into a white out later on!
iceland murals 2016
Many ordinary house walls in Reykjavik are adorned with amazing murals – the streets are full of random sculptures as well.

I stayed at Reykjavik City Hostel which is a little out of town but well serviced by the 14 bus from across the road, which takes you all the way to the Old Harbour (Grandi stop the return journey is headed Listabraut).  It’s right next to one of the best heated pools in town, Laugardalslaug and there’s a lovely park behind it.

The Game of Thrones tour is run by Grayline.  All the tours, and the airport bus, collect you from right outside the hostel.  This was a relief as, outside the main town, the suburban roads are quite exposed for the walker.  It takes less than an hour to walk to the other side of the town centre from the hostel though.

Another good day’s winter wander – keep in mind you have only 6 hours of daylight before the cold dark sets in! – is Oskjuhlid wooded park.  The number 5 bus takes you to the artificial beach with hot tub at Nautholl, then you can wander past the site of the new Asatru heathen temple and head upwards through the dwarf birch and evergreens to the Perlan at the hill top.  It’s a challenge – the paths are often icy and you can’t see the landmark building for the trees – but the view over town is wonderful and the cafe quite reasonably priced.  An 18 bus goes from the main road to the Hlemmur – bus station – where you can catch the number 14 again.