Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Iceland: Days 1 & 2 - Bjork, Banks & Boyle

Surreal start to the trip as I noticed that the music, as we boarded the plane to Reykavik, was an obscure Bjork track. I then sat down next to film director Danny Boyle, so watch out for some weird locations in his next movie.

As for us, why Iceland? First, one son’s yomping across the Peak District, the other’s in France on a school exchange; 4-2=2 free adults. Second, anyone who comes to stay with us will notice that I have a house full of rocks. Since a child I’ve loved geology, so it’s been a lifelong ambition to visit Iceland, as it's full of rocks. I can still remember Surtsey rising from the ocean to form a new island and was trapped for a week Miami (a blessing really) when the recent volcano blew its top.

Iceland is the half-caste child of two violent parents who have been drifting apart for some time; half American, half Eurasian. It sits astride the North Atlantic Ridge and as the two plates separate, lava floods up to form, layer upon layer. This has its advantages as you can sit in tropically blue geothermal waters even in Winter, watch scalding hot geysers spurt 60 odd feet into the air (original geyser is in Geysir) and the water that gushes from all taps in Iceland is pure spring water. This is hard rock geology – then again there’s lazing about in the Blue Lagoon.

Then there are the banks. I was curious to find out what happened here.

Iceland: Day 2 Geysirs, volcanoes and plate tectonics

Iceland’s bigger than I thought, about the size of England – there’s a surprise. But only 320,000 people live here, that’s not much bigger than Brighton & Hove. And they run an entire country. David, an Englishman who has lived here for 15 years, has an interesting take on the island. When he first came here it was like living in an East European country, with little in the way of luxuries. Iceland hadn’t moved much in the Industrial Revolution and was still largely a fishing island, so everything was smuggled in on Russian trawlers. There were only a couple of makes of TV, both Eastern European, and luxuries were few and far between. He remembers when brussell sprouts hit the island and everyone rushed out to buy them – bit of a disappointment that one. But fish became a valuable commodity and the island prospered.

When banks go bonkers

Then something odd happened, the fishermen found banking. It’s a small country, lightly regulated, so the bankers, in cahoots with the politicians and regulators, went mad with greed. It’s an Icelandic Saga that will go down in history. In fact it’s already been well documented in their 2000 page Special Investigative Report (a bestseller in Iceland).

Everyone at the top was in on the greed game; the former Prime Minister Haarde, Finance Minister Mathieson, Business minister Sigurdsson were all deemed to have been negligent, ignoring advice and warnings. Their Central bank Governors, along with the head of the so-called Regulatory Authority were also judged to be negligent.

It gets worse. Many member of parliament (ten in total, seven from the right-wing Independence Party) had personal loans of over half a million sterling from the banks. The Education Minister had loans of $13.4 million (she has since resigned). The President, Grimmson was also in on the act and was pushing all the time for more and more risk.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the majority owners of the largest banks were also their largest debtors. Glitnor, Kaupthing and Landsbanki were overextended to their own owners and up to their necks in corruption. It would seem that the banks were run like a fishing fleet, with owners trawling out massive amounts of cash, plundering the banks and depleting the reserves. Unfortunately, the fish stocks ran out.

This Saturday, Iceland goes to the polls to decide whether to go on with a £2.35 billion agreement to pay back UK Icesave depositors (Landsbanki), that was bailed out by the IMF. It’s neck and neck, and if it’s a NO, and I saw plenty of NO stickers on the backs of cars, it goes to court and the whole international finance system will be under pressure. What a mess.

Hot water and heavy metal

OK, back to the land itself. We set off early in falling snow, but were soon in sunnier climes (the weather changes every five minutes here) driving through rugged, crumbly lava fields to the large geothermal power station that supplies the whole of Reykjavik with hot water. The steam is used to drive turbines which pump the water at 85 degrees to the top of a mountain and it flows down to the city under pressure to taps in every house. They’re world leaders in this type of technology. There’s even a hydrogen fuel station going into Rekjavik where you get the fuel for free.

Then to a volcano with a water filled crater, well frozen water, filled crater. These things blow their top then collapse back in on themselves when the magma chamber empties. After this we drove on to the Gullfoss Waterfall. Now we’ve all seen lots of waterfalls, but if you stood on the edge of this one, it is gut wrenching, as the glacial water boomed into a dark chamber. One curious sight was a heavy metal band (getting on in years) who were posing, legs akimbo, for some photographs and a video on the edge of the waterfall. Boys will always be boys.

Then off to the geysers, which hissed into action every four minutes or so. The mantle’s very close to the surface here and as you see the water dome up and explode into the air, you can feel it breath.

But the next site was what I was looking forward to, a zone where you can see the two plates tear the earth apart. The whole process is laid bare here, with the American plate visible as a cliff on the West side, and stepped cracks and cliffs all the way across a 7 kilometre valley to the Eurasian plate. It’s moving apart at an average of 2.5 cm a year. This was the site of the ancient Icelandic parliament, where disputes were settled and punishments meted out. A few bankers and politicians could be bagged up and drowned here methinks.

David had another take on the Icelanders, They never give way,” he said, “at road junctions, on the pavement, in shop doorways…even in business. They rarely back down”. I thought again of the bankers and politicians.

Iceland: Day 3 Whale watching

Sunday today and all is quiet in Reykjavik. They like a good skinful, and drinking in the street, despite ridiculous prices, seemed common. The good times may be over but they still like a good time. Our whale trip took us right out to sea and boy was it freezing. You could barely look into the wind without feeling that your nose, or worse, would drop off. For light relief we had a couple of drunks on board, likeable drunks. They were drinking cans of 14% Polar Bear lager when we left dock and were hitting the spirits (looked like rum) when we spotted our first Minky whale at the other side of the boat. This sent the hat wearing drunk clattering flat onto to the deck in the rush, but he did what only a drunk can do in these circumstances, kept his hat on and spilt not a drop from his drink. They whooped every time we saw a whale and were singing all the way back to harbour. Boys will be boys. Great fun.

Coloured houses

Our afternoon was spent walking the streets among the red, yellow, blue, green and cream coloured houses. I assume it’s an attempt to stave off the long, dark, grey winters with a splash of colour.

Northern Lights

Our hotel was right on the waterfront, looking North, so we sauntered out at around 10.30 pm to see if we could spot the famed Northern Lights, and we did. Not spectacular, but we saw them glow, appear, disappear and change shape behind the mountains on the far shore.

Iceland: Day 4 Blue Lagoon

Last day and off for a soak in the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s both blue and a lagoon, set bang in the middle of a huge, moss-covered lava field. I’ve swum in tropical, atoll lagoons in the Maldives and Belize, and also thermal springs in Turkey, but this was different. Above the water a brisk, arctic wind blew, and snow lay on the mountains behind, while below the water was wonderfully hot. For three hours we lay and swam, slapped white mud on our faces; a satisfying end to a strange but wonderful trip. Flew home with a weird, warm internal glow.