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08 February 2016

Ahead of her 2016 tour, ACE expert Tour Director and natural historian Harriet Allen reflects on her enduring fascination with Iceland:

Ahead of her 2016 tour, ACE expert Tour Director and natural historian Harriet Allen reflects on her enduring fascination with Iceland:

Iceland gets under your skin – once you have been there you need to return. I have been infected by its beautiful yet bleak landscapes: rugged mountains, low hills, steaming volcanic vents, glaciers and Atlantic coastlines. Although the dominant colours are black, white and blue if you look closely every other colour is there too – from pinks, reds and yellows in the flowers to amazing purples, oranges, reds and rusts in the rocks, as well as more varieties of green than I ever imagined existed. This is a land with very few trees, and the vistas are vast, so long as the clouds aren’t hanging low. But if they are then this simply adds to the brooding atmosphere and, if you wait a short while, the weather will probably change. Sometimes there are all four seasons in one day, even in summer.


I first went to Iceland as an undergraduate and camped for five weeks beside a glacier with five others. We were collecting data on the glacier itself (needing crampons and ice axes) and on the vegetation on the glacier’s moraine (needing little other than a good flora and a camera). It was mid summer – the sun never set – and we were in the middle of nowhere. That summer provided an amazing introduction to geographical fieldwork, even if I did get mild hypothermia the very first night in my tent.



Since that visit I have returned on several occasions and also explored other Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, for their landscapes, flowers and birds. However, Iceland remains the best of them all. Why? I think it is the sheer diversity within a relatively small country, albeit one that is nearly five times the size of Wales. It has, of course, changed economically in very many ways since the 1980s, forging ahead as a financial centre until the banking crisis of 2008-2011. Then there was the infamous, unpronounceable eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in April 2010 that disrupted European air travel for days. Although the Icelanders feared that its volcanic activity might dissuade the very visitors on whom they were pinning their hopes of rebuilding the economy, the eruption had the opposite effect. Whilst in 2000 there were approximately 300,000 tourists (about the size of Iceland’s population) by 2010 there were about half a million, and the most recent figures for 2015 put the number at a bit over a million. report that this year ‘Accommodation is nearly sold out’ but ACE still has spaces on its Iceland: Forces of Nature tour in 2016.


We will be visiting some of the popular destinations such as the Golden Triangle (Thingvellir, Gulfoss and Geysir), Jokulsarlon, the Myvatn geothermal area, the glaciers of Vatnajokull, and whale watching from Husavik. But this trip will also take you to places far less well known, where you will have the chance to see, up close, the flowers and birds. We can’t promise what you’ll see as it will be very weather dependent; in 2015 winter lasted a long time and spring and summer started late. That affected the flowering season, and even though it is summer, some of the birds start their autumn migration as soon as the days start to shorten in late June, but again this depends on the weather. What we can promise, however, are spectacular landscapes of glaciers and volcanoes, even if the clouds are low.



And if you have already visited Iceland, I suspect you’ll want to return as you might have been infected too. I have passed the infatuation on to others in my family. You’ll find evidence of my husband’s photographic obsession with Iceland on his blog, where you can find photos from trips he and I did in 2013 and 2015. They may whet your appetite. In addition, one of my daughters is studying for a PhD in volcanology and her field area is ... Iceland. Finally, I take a bit of Iceland home with me too. In whatever spare time I have, I indulge in textiles and take inspiration from where I have visited. You can see this in the photograph at the top of this post. It’s a representation of the turf houses at Laufas near Akureyri, which we'll visit on our first morning on tour. They were a wealthy vicarage in the late nineteenth century and we’ll learn how the people of the region lived, making hay, fishing and collecting eiderdown from the sea ducks on the fjord. I do hope you’ll join me.