Healing Waters

Famed as the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’, a trip to Iceland is to experience nature in its rawest, purest form. Its landscape, once – not so long ago – described as barren, desolate and uninhabitable is now revered for its beauty, diversity and unparalleled atmosphere. (No wonder it has become one of the favoured filming locations for the little-known television series Game of Thrones, which, incidentally (or not), is an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Fire and Ice.) Fire and ice by definition are the opposite extremes of nature’s miraculous powers; both are intrinsic to our survival yet both have the capability of unmitigated destruction. Perhaps this is why the island is such a magnet for travellers from all degrees of the intrepid scale: beauty and danger on a knife-edge are always going to get hearts racing. But combine the country’s two intrinsic elements – the heat and power of fire with the virtues of the clear and fresh Icelandic water – and you have the recipe for the most abundant, truly organic and (in my opinion) thoroughly enjoyable aspect of all Iceland has to offer: the exquisite geothermal pools and springs.

With the grand Blue Lagoon arguably the biggest Instagram hotspot (pun intended) in the ‘Most Instagrammable Place on Earth’ (according to Cosmopolitan) (I’m not going to disagree), one would be forgiven for thinking that said lagoon was the pinnacle of all hot pools that Iceland has to offer. No doubt it is the best attended, with hoards of tourists visiting the destination whether they are exploring the island for four indulgent weeks or four hurried stopover hours. The Blue Lagoon certainly has the wow factor and facilities (and price tag) to attract attention (and a plethora of plastic-wrapped selfie sticks). But there is so much more to Iceland’s breadth of geothermal bathing than simply its flagship store. From dipping into a blissfully deserted mountain spring to delving into a blissfully decadent seawater bath (with mountain views inclusive throughout), during our two-week foray in and around the magical island we indulged in more geothermal experiences than we would care to admit, and relished each and every moment like it might be our last.

Commencing our anti-clockwise circular trip from the country’s south western capital, we – somewhat predictably – began our geothermal exploration at the aforementioned choice check-in; the turquoise hors d’oeuvre set to whet our silica-craving appetites ‘fore our multi-course extravaganza of, what felt like, all the warm waters that Iceland possibly had to offer. We also figured – somewhat ingeniously – to cross off all of the tourist-heavy spots (namely the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle) at the start of our trip, so that by the time we were truly at one with nature (and Icelandic waterfall aficionados) we did not have to withstand the infuriating crowds of, let’s face it, infuriating (and mainly American) accents and photograph requests. I am intolerant and impatient at the best of times so this was definitely a wise tactic. As anticipated, perhaps even more so, the Blue Lagoon was seething with visitors – and selfie sticks – and miraculously the problematic lagoon-like nature of the attraction did not seem to deter many a guest from bringing their latest iPhone with them right into the water. The fact that they had to purchase a waterproof phone jacket (for, I’m sure, vast amounts of króna), and keep their right arm at a permanently acute angle so as not to let the tech slip into the pool seemingly did not put them off; if anything added to their sense of hardship as a nomadic social media influencer.

The complimentary silica mud mask and alcoholic drink (prosecco for me, darling) were welcome additions; the near death chocking experience at the in-pool water fountain was not. (Should’ve gone for a second prosecco.) But even worse was the moment when I discovered that the shores were lined with seaweed, feeling the silky smooth, nourishing strands gracefully floating between my toes. Seaweed! How amazing! I lifted my foot above the water to closer inspect the algae, and realised that what had been caressing my toes was in fact strands of hair from all of the many guests who had frequented the lagoon up until that point. It was not green or marine-derived; it was long and black and from the heads of annoying Americans!!! My toes curled (as soon as I untangled them from the clumps of hair) and I suddenly needed to get out of the pool, like, NOW. The boyfriend was very understanding and supportive and escorted me immediately to safety, but later admitted that he had in fact predicted that the seaweed I had discovered was something more sinister, but hadn’t wanted to dampen my mood.

Around 75 km east of Reykjavik was the so-called Secret Lagoon (supposedly the oldest swimming pool in Iceland), but, judging by the number of Asian’s with whom we shared the lake, awareness of the lagoon had stretched a little further than the confines of Fluðir’s native population. Much less grand and polished than it’s Blue counterpart, the Secret Lagoon felt more authentic and au naturel, with the invasion of foot hygiene this time provided by a jagged, rocky flooring, and the near death experience experienced this time by my companion, during his scantily-clad dash in bitterly cold Icelandic winds to save my left barbie-pink flip flop who was rather taken with the Nordic gale. (Both survived virtually unscathed.)

Circa 800 km later on the renowned Route 1, on the opposite side of the country, lay Mývatn Nature Baths, a perfect balance between luxury and unpretentiousness; by all accounts the ideal geothermic encounter. Due to its proximity to the ‘sulphuric martian landscape’ Námaskarð (i.e. a great moon-like expanse of rotten-egg-scented hell), however, I was unable to fully relax in its surrounds because of the lingering, inharmonious, almighty hum. (My concerned partner kept asking if I was ok, in reaction to my persistent pained expression, but I was fine – really – just trying to achieve respiration through a facial orifice which would not also ingest the rotten ruddy aroma.)

On the opposite extreme entirely to these relatively orchestrated geothermal experiences was the largely untouched and totally at-one-with-natured Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River. Being in the vicinity of the Golden Circle we were aware (as ever) of the potential for what was intended to be a morning of serene seclusion to be overrun by another heard of selfie-stick-sporting sightseers. So we set our alarm for 5 am sharp and made sure we got there before anyone else. An hour-or-so hike took us to the crystal clear waters; this hour-or-so spent playing overtaker and overtakee of a group of three fellow early birds with whom we were quite shamelessly racing to beat to the stream. Thanks to a number of outer clothing readjustments (on my part) and a number of unmissable photo opportunities (on their part) it was touch and go for most of the hike. But down to sheer determination (on our part) we beat them to it, disrobing quicker than we thought possible (if it hadn’t have been for the adrenaline I’m not sure we would have got down to our swimwear in the ice-cold air) to position ourselves safely in the stream for their delayed arrival. Oh we enjoyed the supremacy.

The stream, barely a couple of feet in depth, was deliciously warm and comforting and like a big molten marshmallow embrace. The air above was cold and crisp (and deep and even?), and the reason behind my swimsuit and bobble hat ensemble. (Quite a look, I’m sure you’d agree.) When our fingers began to wrinkle we emerged; saintlier, softer and slightly soggier versions of our former selves.

But if we were going to go down the authentic path then we simply could not omit a visit (or five) to ‘the local’ public swimming baths; institutions which could be found – without exception – in every town across the country, no matter the lack of inhabitants in the area. Attending these baths afforded us (even more) (much-needed) relaxation time; an insight into local life; and washing facilities included in the entrance fee, which often cost less than a five-minute speed shower at the campsite would. Here one really got a feel for the locals – why you were sharing tiny hot tubs and nudity-enforced showers with them, dear! – and in particular developed an understanding of the comfort they felt within their own skin, and the absolute absence of concern about their own, or their neighbours, naked bodies. It was very refreshing. Everyone was natural and normal: there was big, small, lumpy and bumpy, saggy, pert, and everything in-between. No one looked but more staggeringly no one cared. This was just totally normal for them, going about their business with absolutely no clothes on and no sense of urgency to grab a towel. Young and old and all sorts of ability – everyone was the same. But different. And that was simply accepted.

Last of all, and my personal favourite, was the newly-opened (and not yet completed) GeoSea, found on the outskirts of the north coast’s whale-watching town of Húsavík. As the name suggests, these baths are filled with naturally warmed seawater, which – thankfully – had none of the repulsive nasal interruptions as was the case at Mývatn. Housed within a hobbit-like grass-roofed mound, albeit its slightly unfinished state it was classy and clean and understated and just cool. Once you’d done your thing in the changing room (naked, of course) you came out to the sea-facing baths; infinity pools which led to mountainous backdrops, and were backed up themselves by a swim-to bar. We were in there for over three hours, enjoying the minerals, the views and, of course, the multiple glasses of wine.

Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River

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Into The Wild

Camping. A dreamy night beneath the stars or a nightmarish dream interrupted by the elements, mild claustrophobia, and the incessant need to use the bathroom whenever the sleeping position gets fractionally bearable? Both, really. But campers-to-be always go into their trip in one of the two camps: the optimistic romantic versus the cynical realist. Members from both teams will no doubt end up being surprised (whether pleasantly or otherwise), but whether you approach the challenge with scepticism, or your idealism gets slowly weathered during the course of the getaway, one cannot deny that there is a sense of magic and intrigue in the notion of rocking up somewhere – anywhere – at any time of night, with the only requirement being a flat(ish) plot of land on which to pitch your tent, and in just a matter of minutes (after some careful practice) you can transform the wilderness into your humble home.

I most definitely entered my twelve-night camping stint, to be conducted on and around Iceland’s picturesque coastline, in Camp A. I was ready for the star gazing, the bonfires, the exquisite seclusion and the at-one-with-nature-ness. Privately viewing beautiful sunsets and rises were top on my to do list, as was waiting up – and out – for the elusive northern lights (while, of course, enjoying marshmallows speared by fallen branches melted to molten decadence over said roaring bonfire). The mornings, too, would be spent enjoying the surroundings of our temporary abode, which would more often than not overlook a lovely little lake or the glistening sea, preparing a batch of freshly scrambled eggs or warming porridge to provide the necessary sustenance for the day’s undoubtedly intrepid activities.

This vision, I regret to add, was nothing more than a pipe dream. Not one sunrise was observed; not one glimpse of the aurora borealis enjoyed; and not one even lukewarm breakfast delicacy consumed. But my optimistic romanticism would not be dampened that easily. Yes, we may have had to erect the tent in the dark / on soggy grass / against off-the-scale winds, but, in each and every case, once we were securely inside and wrapped up nicely (which for me meant three pairs of trousers, three pairs of socks, six tops and jumpers and, on occasion, a hat and gloves), and had zipped up the front door (I’m going to call it that), we were in a world of our own, away from anyone and anything else, which felt pretty bloody spectacular.

But then we had to engineer ourselves into our respective sleeping bags, at which point the minisculity of our immediate environs became very apparent indeed. With zips already the default fastener of our tent and outer clothing, the idea of YET MORE ZIPS on the sleeping bags brought a mild sense of agitation to both inmates (the narrator in particular), and that was before one had got one’s fifth jumper / hair / inner lining / index finger lodged in the ruddy thing’s mechanisms. My specific sleeping bag had the added utility (complication) of a zippable inner bag which, although on first impressions seemed a marvellous addition, got frightfully in the way of ultimate closure, and made mid-night fidgeting that little bit more suffocating. Anywho. Each evening as we settled down into the boudoir I endeavoured to position myself within the duo-layered sleep suit, often having to seek assistance from the other half when I accidentally zipped myself (or any other unsuspecting item) into the sleeping bag seal one too many times. The tightening of the mummy-hole followed; a procedure wholly impossible when one is actually within the sleeping bag and zipped up, so again I pressed the call button and lay, my eyes resting closed, wistfully, my mouth reaching out for one last goodnight kiss, and surrendered myself to the total enclosure achieved with the drawing of the strings, and to the resulting breathing hole with which I was left. And last of all was the excruciating task of re-positioning oneself to adopt a more comfortable pose, while attempting to keep all fastenings secure; remain – as much as humanly possible – out of negative swivilation with the inner (or outer) bag; and show the upmost sympathy and respect for the limbs and designated air-mattress-half of your bedfellow. It makes me weary just thinking about it.

So falling asleep – once the above routine had been painfully completed – was not, in fact, a terribly difficult job. One was so utterly exhausted from the physical and mental exertion that one would generally cross into the unconscious somewhat seamlessly. The problem, it entailed, was when one wanted – or one’s bladder needed one – to get up. This was a test for the willpower, abdominals and, perhaps most crucially, the pelvic floor.

One reacts differently to the need or want to go from lying, horizontally, on a blow-up mattress within a small but perfectly adequate tent enclosure to standing, upright, in the open air depending on the reason behind the task. Most frustrating of all scenarios is the need to pee, especially when the demand comes fast and furious, and introduces itself immediately after the completed execution of the going-to-bed procedure. In this case a quandary hits: do I undo all of my hard work to relieve my bladder and have (hopefully) an interruption-free night; or do I try to ignore the niggling tingling of my (unfortunately unzippable) urine chamber, pretend I am as empty as my bank account, and continue to try to fall asleep while knowing, deep down, that this need just ain’t gunna go away. The second option always prevails. (Something to do with romantic optimism?) Anything is better than undoing the just-fastened zips (upon zips upon zips) to relieve oneself immediately. Which of course results in, most often, a few hours of uncomfortable denial / at best a short stretch of restless light sleep / at worst a bout of mild-to-moderate cystitis. After which time one realises that they really must use the bathroom NOW, and must proceed to unlock themselves from their temporary coffin, waking up their partner, no doubt, in the process, while admitting to themselves that they should have bloody gone when they first bloody needed.

The donning of the outdoor gear thus follows: glasses (for those like myself who are not naturally blessed with functioning eyesight); head torch (to help alert the tent-mate to the ever-increasing kerfuffle); and hiking boots (with which to protect your three-plus layers of socks from the treacherous terrain en route to the toilet block). Perfecting the order of bedecking oneself with the three props remains to elude me. Glasses being the main stumbling block. How do you find them when you have no light? You can’t. But how do you find the light when you cannot see? You can’t. But how do you find your glasses when it’s pitch black and you are totally blind? You somehow manage to do it (after turning the entire contents of the tent (and your partner) upside down). The glasses are on (phew). But it is still pitch black and thus they are not doing a great deal. (They are also bloody cold for they have not, unlike oneself, being zipped shut in a almost air-tight sleeping bag for the duration you have been needing the toilet.) So now you search for the head torch which, in the aftermath of searching for the glasses, is now on the opposite side of the tent under four layers of clothes and in your boyfriend’s shoe. Let there be light. Now it is light but you still cannot see a thing. You are wearing your glasses, of course, but with the coldness of the air and the warmth of your face they have steamed up to high heaven and are, in fact, masking your already shoddy vision to worse than would be the case without them. So you place them on your head, the handles tucked into the head torch strap for extra support, and readjust to the world as you now see it: a big blurry mess (but with, thankfully, less fog than when bespectacled). Now one must put on one’s shoes, which have been sensibly placed by the exit of the chamber, requiring merely a quick bum-shuffle to the end of the bed, a partial opening of the inner tent door, and a feet-out / head-in situation as you try to ply them over your thoroughly insulated – and thus thoroughly enlarged – tootsies. With all your equipment in place it is now time for the crescendo: the getting up and out of the ruddy thing. Once the inner door is fully unzipped comes the hamstring and glutes workout – the sitting to crouching manoeuvre – to achieve a position which places you in the entrance hall, if you will, of the home, ready to close the inner door on your partner before opening the outer door to the world outside. You inevitably fall over when performing this trick, and have the head torch shining nice and bright to highlight the incident to anyone else in the campsite who happens to still be awake. If you haven’t wet yourself by this point… I salute you.

What follows is a drunken-like saunter to the facilities, more often than not assuming an alternative, highly detourious, route, involving a number of unforeseen obstacles and near-misses. But you make it, eventually, to the cubicle, and relieve your burning need, finally, which now presents itself as the slowest of river trickles due to its overdue nature. But you wait, you persevere, and at long last your bladder is light and free.

The reverse performance of the getting-to-the-toilet act is just as troublesome and clumsy as its predecessor, but once you are wrapped up warm, once more, in your little private haven, free from any lavatorial constraints, you can – finally – drift into deep, restorative sleep. (Before your alarm goes off and you need to go through the whole friggin’ drama again.)