Few countries lay out such an uninviting welcome mat as Iceland. The International Airport at Keflavik (KEF) is on the barren Reykjanes Peninsula, most of which is described as Hraun, or volcanic waste. The photo above shows the Þáinsskjaldarhraun around Vogar, which is succeeded by the Kapelluhraun as you approach the gigantic aluminum smelter just south of Hafnarfjörður. It doesn’t look very inviting, does it?
As a form of visual punctuation, from the road one can see volcanic steam rising from the ground south around Krysuvik.
And yet just about everyone I meet repeats the old chestnut that Iceland is Green and Greenland is, well, ice. Not exactly. Large stretches of Iceland—approximately 10%—are ice, in the form of glaciers. Another 50-60% are volcanic wastelands, especially in the interior of the country. Look at a map of the island, and you will notice that there are no towns in the interior—nada, zero, zip. Just about everyone lives either on the coast or in one of the scattered fertile valleys near the coast in which the lava has been around long enough to form topsoil. (Where it hasn’t, the enterprising Icelanders have planted lupines,which help the process along.)
Below is a field of lupines at the edge of a volcanic ridge:
As you get closer to Reykjavik (the airport is 30 km southwest), you begin to see grasses and trees; and you get to feel somewhat better about your vacation choice.
I remember my first encounter with the hraun landscapes in 2001, which made me ask myself, “What are you letting yourself in for, Jim? This looks like the Mojave Desert on ice.”