Modern Iceland has a population barely exceeding 300,000 people. The vast majority of Icelanders (over 200,000) live in Reykajvík and the surrounding conurbation, which consists of Mosfellsbær to the north, and Kópavogur, Garðabær and Hafnarfjörður to the south. The next largest town is Akureyri, in the north of the country, which has a population of around 18,000, with the rest of Iceland’s population distributed throughout towns, villages, hamlets and farms scattered around the coastline. The interior, also known as Hálendið (the highland), is utterly uninhabitable, and impassable by all but the most rugged 4×4. In winter, the four routes through the middle of Iceland are closed to traffic completely.
The extremely low population density means that road maintenance, which is funded by taxpayers, is prioritised towards the more populous regions, and it is not uncommon to be driving towards a remote lake, waterfall or settlement and find the road surface suddenly deteriorate into a pitted gravel surface (heralded by the warning ‘Malbik Endar’). Recent years have seen a huge rise in tourist visitors to Iceland, however, and many of the more popular destinations are now serviced by fully surfaced roads.
Despite its low population, Iceland has a booming music scene, which reaches far beyond the much feted Björk and Sigur Rós. Something in the education system, possibly combined with the island’s isolation, means many people use music as a form of self-expression, and the parochial nature of even the capital means musicians don’t need to look far to find like-minded individuals with whom they can form bands. Another consequence of the lack of people means that many bands share members, and it’s not uncommon to see the same musician appear with two or even three separate bands at various times.
The annual Iceland Airwaves festival, held in venues across Reykjavík in the late autumn, has in recent years grown exponentially into one of the world’s foremost musical events. Acting as a showpiece for primarily new and up-and-coming artists (from home and abroad), it is a great way to acquaint oneself with the local musical talent, as well as discover some newer bands on the verge of greatness (Florence and the Machine and Elbow are two bands who rose to international recognition on the back of Airwaves appearances). Some idiosyncratic choices at the 2011 event (namely Sinéad O’Connor and Yoko Ono) made many people question the festival’s commitment to new music, but the general feeling from people who attended was that it was possibly the best thing they’d been to, ever.
Winter in Iceland is an unusual time of year for people used to less polar latitudes. It’s common knowledge that through the winter solstice you get very little daylight at all. Even in late February the sun rises above the horizon for just 9 hours, and given that Iceland is further to the west than the UK, yet still uses GMT, the ‘day’ is shifted so that you get more daylight after midday than before. This also gives rise to a more regular ‘midnight sun’ during the summer months that would otherwise not occur, a sly marketing trick, I think!
Iceland’s main international airport sits at the western tip of the Reykjanes peninsula, near the town of Keflavík, and is named after Leifur Eiríksson, the man credited by many with discovering the Americas (though he named them Vinland). First time visitors, who have been informed by their departure airport that their flight is to Reykjavík, are usually in for a surprise as there is a half-hour journey by road through the barren lava fields of Reykjanes before they finally reach the capital.
I had met a young couple on the plane who, despite being well-travelled, had not visited Iceland before. I envied them their first visit to Iceland, an experience that can never be repeated. Instead, I picked up my rental car and drove myself to the capital, where I was meeting Inga, who had very kindly arranged my accommodation for the week in the 4-star Radisson 1919 hotel right in the middle of town.
Once settled in, I helped myself to one of the town’s, and possibly the world’s, best hotdogs. ‘Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur’ literally means ‘Town’s best hotdogs’ and is aptly named. If you ask for ‘eina með öllu’ (‘one with everything’) you get a bun with onions, ketchup, mustard and remoulade sauce smothered over a perfect hotdog sausage. As traditional Icelandic food goes, it’s not quite up there with dried fish or fermented shark, but if it’s good enough for President Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for me. (In fact, Slick Willie only wanted mustard on his, so if you ask for ‘the Clinton’, that’s what you get!)
As the sky darkened I decided to head for Setljarnarnes, the northwesterly point on the small peninsula on which Reykjavík sits, to see what the aurora was up to. When I arrived, there was a pale green arc in the northern sky, but little movement. I sat in the car for a few minutes to wait, and suddenly, I saw a portion of the arc start to brighten and move. It wasn’t long before the aurora started to put on a real show.
A Brazilian man who was there too seemed very agitated by the whole thing. He asked me if that was the aurora, and when I confirmed that it was, seemed to be overcome with emotion, thanking me passionately, as though I had personally laid on the aurora for him. He saw that I was taking photographs and ask if I’d help him do the same, but when he fetched his camera from the car, I had to inform him that his compact point-and-shoot wouldn’t be capable of the long exposures necessary. He seemed decidedly crestfallen by the news, but brightened up quickly enough when his attention returned to the celestial light show.
With aurora pictures sorted, what was I to do for the rest of the week? I had been hoping to capture some more photos with perhaps one of Iceland’s famous waterfalls in the foreground, but I knew I’d be at the mercy of the elements, and had probably been extremely fortunate just to capture what I had tonight.
Sadly, on closer inspection, the picture above is still slightly out of focus, something I only discovered once I uploaded the images onto my laptop back at the hotel. So I was going to have to try again at some point if I was to get the headline-grabbing images that I wanted.