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"Swimming is our national sport," the tour guide remarked casually to the astonished travellers who stood rugged-up and shivering by the bus. A few Icelanders nodded in agreement, as if this fact were obvious.
This was not the first aspect of Icelandic life that seemed to make no sense. Even before I arrived I wondered how a country so far from everywhere, that spends half the year in darkness, could have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and could lie second on the Human Development Index (a global measure of the standard of living).
But if Iceland seemed an exotic and unusual place from a distance, the mystery deepened when I arrived.
Keflavik airport in the southwest is surrounded by the lava wasteland that covers 64 per cent of the country. The sun was still high in the sky near midnight, a faint smell of sulphur hung in the air, and around me were ads for volcano tours and restaurants serving rotten shark and lamb testicles.
Where on Earth was I? I was not surprised to hear that astronauts have used Iceland to prepare for visits to the moon.
Iceland straddles the edges of the European and American tectonic plates, and as the plates tear apart, the country is literally growing. A vast valley is opening in Þingvellir National Park in the country's southwest, with sheer cliffs creeping slowly apart on either side.
The rifting plates also make Iceland one of the most geologically active countries in the world. A four-year volcanic eruption sculpted the island of Surtsey off the southern coast, which emerged from the ocean late in 1963.
Hot springs and geysers dot the landscape, and with sporting fields often covered in snow or engulfed in darkness, it's not surprising Icelanders choose to swim year-round in naturally heated pools.
The Blue Lagoon, a 30-minute bus ride from the capital Reykjavik, is the most famous of Iceland's thermal baths. There, men, women and children use white silica mud from the lagoon to cleanse their skin.
The sight of visitors emerging from the steaming waterhole, set amongst lava flows and ice, their faces covered in dried white silica and their bodies dripping blue, is truly alien. The only drawback to this beautiful scene is the smell of sulphur at shower time.