Sometimes You Will Back into a Lamp Post in the Middle of Nowhere!

“Life just doesn’t care about our aspirations or sadness. It’s often random, and it’s often stupid and it’s often completely unexpected, and the closures and the epiphanies and revelations we end up receiving from life, begrudgingly, rarely turn out to be the ones we thought.” – Khaled Hosseini –

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Iceland has become one of my favourite places on the planet. My partner and I had the privilege of circumnavigating this magnificent piece of terra firma last year (I kept some travel reflections – Part One starts on this link). We hired a 4 wheel drive that took us to some of the more remote areas where we crossed streams that totally disregarded the ‘road’ and held our breath while ascending and descending the terrifying steep cliffs on either side of fjords.

Sorcerer's Cottage, Klúka, Bjarnafjörður
Sorcerer’s Cottage, Klúka, Bjarnafjörður

The Westfjord of Iceland does not see that much traffic. The bulk of tourists stick to the Golden Circle down south. It was my turn to drive when we explored this exquisite area. Even though I was driving on the ‘right’ side, which is actually the ‘wrong side for us Aussies, it was a fairly easy, serene tour. We noticed a small guesthouse with a “Sorcerer’s Cottage” sign and out of sheer curiosity drove into the empty, small carpark. And, yes, it was in this desolate carpark that we actually argued about where to park… long story. So out of sheer irritation, I reversed back to a spot suggested by my partner and that’s when I hit the lamp post.

Now you need to understand that this was THE only lamp post, not just in the carpark, but probably for miles and miles around. I managed to hit that one and only lamp post in what felt like all of Iceland! The lamp post, like a soccer diva (player), did not just absorb the small bump and hide my embarrassment! No, it shuddered, and began a slo-mo lean, creaking dangerously, as if to lament the fact that it had stood there for decades and now a stupid tourist has brought about its demise. I was mortified.

A woman walked on to the porch of the guesthouse, presumably the owner of the guesthouse and therefore the lamp post guardian. She just stood with her mouth open. When I eventually ceased the long flow of descriptive German words and cracked the car door open, she uttered profundities, “Why would you hit the lamp post when you have all this carpark and the surrounding fields to park in?” It was a vexing question. A question that, gauging by the conversation that followed, never really was rewarded with a satisfactory answer. Simply because in life there are days when you will defy the law of 99.99999% possibility and hit a lamp post in the middle of nowhere.

The rest of the day was ruined for me, even though I was surrounded by the most stunning vistas. I was dreading the Icelandic powers-that-be to banish me from their northern kingdom or to receive a ginormous bill to run a new power line stretching for hundreds of kilometres in order to erect a new lamp post. But it turns out that Icelanders do not just have a wicked sense of humour, they are also very kind. I never heard another thing about that lamp post. I know it would not have survived the ordeal.

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Friend, in life there are days and seasons that feel like Iceland Lamp Post Moments. One moment we are neatly tucked away in our part of the world, minding our own business, the next moment we are surrounded by drama through a most bizarre set of circumstances. We can beat ourselves up, question the lamp post gods, fret over the cosmic injustice that allows us to be part of the 0.00001% of people that back into lamp posts in the middle of nowhere … or simply embrace life with all its strange lamp post moments.

Embracing lamp post moments is not easy. Trust me, you are talking to a lamp post anxiety expert! We have to change the narrative about how we view those moments and seasons – something like, “How gifted am I to have hit the only lamp post in Iceland!” Now some would call that delusion, I call it survival with style! In all seriousness, I will never forget our fantastic Iceland getaway … and I have a lamp post to thank for that!

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Arctic Terns and Lupin Flowers: Reflections on Relentless Thoughts

“The Arctic Tern is one of the most aggressive terns, fiercely defensive of its nest and young. It will attack humans and large predators, usually striking the top or back of the head. Although it is too small to cause serious injury, it is capable of drawing blood. Other birds can benefit from nesting in an area defended by Arctic Terns.”
Migration – 

Our road trip through Iceland had to be one of the major highlights of 2016. I loved that hauntingly beautiful country.  This past week I spent time looking through photos and came across this:

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Arctic Tern COLONY you might be attacked by hundreds of angry birds, wear a hat and or hold a stick or Lupin flower above your head. 
 
We spent a few days in the Skálanes Nature and Heritage Centre, staying at a Mountain Lodge, 17km east of Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland. Taking a walk along the rugged coastline we came across the sign. Our amusement was cut short as the hilarious warning became a chilling reality – we became the focus of hundreds of very angry birds! Running for our lives like the students in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” there was no time to pick a Lupin flower – just get me the hell out of here.

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Months later I now sit in the peaceful forest surroundings in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland with no Arctic Tern in sight. Only the ones in my head. It is amazing what happens when you take time out; the very act of seeking solace in quiet spaces can become a minefield of a thousand thoughts and some of them are very angry. We should go into times of solitude and reflection with warning signs: “You might be attacked by hundreds of relentless, incessant thoughts – stick a Lupin flower in your hair and smile.

As a serial ‘overthinker’, an empath, and an only child, this blog is dedicated to all tortured souls out there who, like me, asked ‘why’ long before we ever said ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’!  Those not wired this way tend to see our questions and cynical streak as negative – and they have a point! We all have our shadows. Understanding that our critical mind can very quickly morph into an Arctic Tern Colony is an important step in self recognition. Just like the folk on the opposite spectrum can fly into the positive hyper-reality of Neverland, never to be seen again.

Existential angst is the hound that snaps at our heels on a daily basis. What a menacing beast it is. We look for meaning and everything needs to be analysed critically. Mistakes and regret are some of our worst nightmares. We have a small-talk phobia and would rather pluck the hair of our big toe than listen to cliches or one word answers. We connect deeply with the German word “Sehnsucht”, or unfathomable longing, that takes our mind on tours and detours as we search for significance and essence, just like Indiana Jones hunts for ancient artefacts.

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Some of us have found meaning in faith. Identifying with the author of Ecclesiastes (another obsessive overthinker!!) who wrestled with profound profundities and in exasperation declared that God has placed eternity in the human heart, we ponder all our lives and still don’t get it (3:11). The great, late C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” My own personal thousand rabbit holes of thought leads me back to the life and claims of Christ – but it is not an easy, ‘happy-go-lucky’ faith path. Rather, I go through seasons of doubt, hounded by questions that I know are veiled in mystery that greater minds have pondered for centuries.

But I digress! Back to those Arctic Terns that at times take it upon themselves to disrupt our peaceful state. Lupin flowers, it seems, are Iceland’s answer for this force of nature. The Nootka Lupin is a native to North America. It was introduced to Iceland in the first half of the 20th century to combat erosion, speed up land reclamation, and help with re-forestation. The Nootka Lupin has proven to be effective for land reclamation. However, some are concerned because it is spreading too quickly and becoming too invasive, and this delightful purple flower has now earned the name ‘Alaskan Wolf’.

362036164-nootka-lupin-reykjanes-wildflower-meadow-flowerIcelanders suggest taking this beautiful, purple perennial pest and waving it wildly above our heads to deter angry birds targeting our scalp. There is a lesson in this for all fellow overthinking empaths out there. When critical thinking begins to turn us into brooding balls of melancholy it is time to deliberately find some invasive forms of happy thought and swing them around in our head like a maniac. We don’t ban Arctic Terns, they need to be recognised and acknowledged, but we draw a line when they start to shit on our heads. 

So what does that Lupin flower look like for you? A bungee jump down some mountain cliffs? A long walk on the beach? Getting out your paint brushes and creating art that has no rules attached? A motorbike ride? A visit to the state library or national gallery? A good glass of red and a cigar? A cup of coffee with a dear friend? Singing in the rain? Goethe? Jazz or Viking Metal? When we open our eyes, we discover that we are surrounded by Lupin flowers.

Arctic terns come and go. We don’t pretend they don’t exist. They do and they have a role to play. So do Lupin flowers. Through the yin and yang of life, we discover that for every Arctic Tern there is also a Lupin flower. Remember that, dear friend. Pick your favourite flower, wave it above your head, and do a wild dance … just for the heck of it!

Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive – it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” – Anne of Green Gables (Montgomery)
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Idyllic Iceland – Part 4 (Finale)

“Adventure is worthwhile” – Aesop

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I was wrong! You know, this bit from Part 3: “But if you are after a fast, busy, techno holiday with smoke and bubbles – Iceland is not for you.” I wrote that after circumnavigating most of Iceland, but I hadn’t arrived in Reykjavik. And two thirds of Icelanders live in Reykjavik! And in summer they never sleep!

After leaving heavenly Skalanes, we headed south. The roads become wider and there were noticeably more people and tourist buses on the move. At our accommodation near Skogafoss, another beautiful waterfall, a local informed me that Iceland tourism has been growing 20% per year over the last five years, and it is putting tremendous pressure on the infrastructure. In 2017, Iceland is expecting over two million tourists . Not only is that a new record but that is a heck of a lot of people for a tiny country of around 330,000 people.

Skogafoss
Skogafoss

The south is beautiful. Walking on the Vatna Glacier, Iceland’s largest ice cap, with its eerie stillness and black, white and blue colourings, felt like I had been transported into the fantasy realm of Narnia. I could have spent hours staring at Iceland’s most visited tourist destination: the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.

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We took time to visit Geysir (meaning gusher), with its spectacular geothermal pools and diva of a geyser, after which all other geysers are named.

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All history and geology buffs should visit Thingvellir. So much of Icelandic history and identity was shaped here. It is also the meeting place of the North American and Euroasian tectonic plates. I walked through the middle of the rift and marvelled at the wonder of our world.

Our last few days have been spent in the island’s capital, Reykjavik. We arrived in time for the Annual Jazz festival and settled ourselves in a little apartment in the middle of the city. Our stay co-incided with a weekend, and it feels like the whole city centre has become a giant street party that really only gets going after midnight. Icelanders don’t settle down in one pub for the night, they crawl from one to the next, getting progressively louder as they do. I am very in love with my industrial ear plugs right now!

Hallgrimskirkja
Hallgrimskirkja

The time has come to pack and take the long journey home. Iceland has been a blast and I am so very grateful to have shared the time with my most favourite human and partner-in-crime of 30 years.

I highly recommend this part of the planet to all who have a sense of adventure and wanderlust.

I will leave you with a few more travel tips:

1. Book your accommodation ahead of time. In summer this tiny island takes a tourist beating. Don’t expect to book last minute. Even with my partner’s careful planning, there were some areas that were nearly booked out … and that was months ago.

2. Alcohol is very expensive here. If you enjoy a glass of red, I suggest you buy a bottle at the government run ‘Vinbudin’. The restaurant prices are ridinkulous!

3. You can save money on meals by ensuring that your accommodation includes breakfast. Also, many of the small supermarkets around the country have delicious fresh sandwiches for sale. These made up most of our lunches. Find out where the locals go out to dinner and eat there. Many of the highlighted restaurants are simply run for the large tourist buses that roll in.

4. There are so many amazing geothermal pools right around the island. Some are free. Others are part of a local swimming pool and the entrance fee is minimal. Speaking about swimming pools, these play a major role on any Icelanders recreation list. You will find locals speak with a sense of pride about their pools. We avoided the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik. At €65 ($94 AUD) per person with towel and locker hire, that was beyond premium! We chose a local pool with hot springs and paid $11 for both of us 🙂

Here ends my Icelandic iPhone travel rambles. Wherever your travels take you, pilgrim, may you feel humbled at the grandeur of the planet we call home.

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All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. – Martin Buber

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Idyllic Iceland – Part 3

… Continuation of Icelandic rambling Part 3 – coming to you via my iPhone  … And thanks to Iceland’s rich supply of free & fast WiFi even in the remotest mountain region …

After a couple of days up north in Husavik, we headed east to the Skandales Mountain Lodge. Taking a detour, we stopped at the Vatnajökull National Park, Europe’s largest protected reserve. You could spend weeks here. We just had time to walk down to the gorge at Ásbyrgi and marvel at the vertical canyon walls. It seems that in Iceland, Mother Nature got totally carried away and threw some of her world’s most gobstopping spectacles on one tiny island.

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Dettifoss Falls was the next stop. At 100 metres wide and with a 44 metre fall it is Europe’s most powerful waterfall. It is spectacular with a permanent giant rainbow as its crown. Thundering at such voluminous speed it sends up a permanent spray that can be seen for over a kilometre away. Do take care on the walkways, they can be very slippery.

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We then headed to Seyðisfjörður. A 27 kilometre road over the Fjarðarheiði mountain connects Seyðisfjörður to the rest of Iceland. If you see one place in East Iceland – let it be this place. Situated at the very end of a fjord, surrounded by mountains, it is decorated with colourful wooden buildings – the whispers of a past when this place was inhabited by Norwegian fishermen. We drove another 17 kilometres out of town, along a perilous dirt road with three river crossings to arrive at our accommodation – Skandales Mountain Lodge. This is about as remote as you can get – and is probably a visual display centre for what some would call heaven. If you ever come here, hike up the mountain – the hike took us about five hours return, we built a stone pillar on the very top … It may still stand there to applaud your effort when you arrive.

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A couple of travel tips and reflections:

One, the roads in Iceland vary. The main Ring road (1) that circles around the island is mainly asphalt, but on our trip south today there were also sections of gravel and some serious cliffs and turns without any barriers. Although roads are well built, they are narrow and elevated in order to handle snow and flood. You cannot become complacent on these roads. If you feel uncertain about driving here, or driving on the right side of the road, please consider a bus tour. It will be far more relaxing. And you probably won’t come to a screeching halt like we did when we spotted three reindeer casually strolling along the black coastal shores!

Two, Icelanders are hospitable, warm and informal. You feel very safe and welcome in this beautiful country of theirs. I hope that the increasing tourism treats them well so that the delightful innocence, that is part of this place like the fresh air, continues.

View from our room at Skalanes Mountainlodge
View from our room at Skalanes Mountainlodge

Three, Iceland is made for those who love nature and outdoors. It is a nirvana for any artist. It’s rich history and sagas will keep you enraptured as you travel to the different places. But if you are after a fast, busy, techno holiday with smoke and bubbles – Iceland is not for you.

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A Toast to Iceland

Our land of lakes forever fair
below blue mountain summits,
of swans, of salmon leaping where
the silver water plummets,
of glaciers swelling broad and bare
above earth’s fiery sinews —
the Lord pour out his largess there
as long as earth continues!

– Jonas Hallgrimsson

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Idyllic Iceland – Part Two

My rambling Icelandic travel reflections continue …

We spent a couple of days in Nyp, exploring the stunning Snaefellsness Peninsular and the Strandir Coast in the Westfjords. Then it was time to head north to our next destination – the quaint little seaside town of Husavik, famous for its whale watching expeditions.

We took a scenic detour on the way Husavik. This included some interesting F roads. Yes, F roads! And they really are F roads. F stands for ‘fjall’, which means ‘mountain’. And these F roads are only for 4WDs. Please, believe me, you need a decent 4WD to go off the beaten track. We crossed many rivers, which was a huge amount of fun, but they would be real F roads with any other vehicle!

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And let’s just talk about those tunnels. Seriously, Iceland, how to scare the BarJebus out of your tourists. Some tunnels are one lane, very dark, and it feels like you are playing chicken with the oncoming set of headlights. One side of the tunnel has tiny turnout areas that the car travelling in that direction has to pull into in order to let the other one pass. It’s enough to get the adrenalin pumping … Personally, I think they should be called F Tunnels. Look out for them!

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Husavik is beautiful. We are staying in Husavik Cottages in the middle of natural birdlands and the view over the lakes to the coast and snow capped mountains is totally stunning. The place is quiet and you don’t notice any other humans … which makes it a paradise not just for birds but for introverts 🙂

View from the cottages in Husavik
View from the cottages in Husavik

Ok, whale watching – you have to go whale watching. We chose one of the original, old fishing boats, now converted into a magnificent sailing ship, to take the 4 hour journey, and it was so worth it. We saw humpback whales breaching across the glassy surface, smaller minke whales darting in front of the ship, and Puffins … Thousands of those comical looking birds with their bright orange beaks and feet.

Whale watching boats
Whale watching boats

For people like myself, who prefer these magnificent whales in the water, instead of on a menu at some restaurant to feed the face of an overfed tourist, check out the web (http://icewhale.is/whale-friendly-restaurants/) or download an app to support whale friendly restaurants. With all the food available to feed our robust bodies, please avoid eating whale. Avoid eating puffins too. In fact, it’s a great idea to become mindful of what we stuff into our mouths at anytime and the price paid for our indulgences.

Two more travelling tips:

One, is to invest in the Lonely Planet’s book on Iceland. This was a gift from one of our sons, and we have used it every day. It is jam packed with very helpful information on nearly every area in Iceland.

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Two, Iceland is expensive. We have planned this trip, which marks the momentous occasion of 30 years of marriage and my 50 years on planet earth, for quite some time. This is not one of those holidays that you take spontaneously and hope for the best. It is cold here – so you need to sleep somewhere warm. You will also need to eat (remember, no whale!) – accommodation and food is expensive. So plan and save for your Iceland holiday.

More Icelandic rambling coming your way shortly …

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Idyllic Iceland – Part One

Our trip through Iceland began a couple of days ago.  Touching down at Keflavik Airport, approximately 48 kilometres outside the capital of Reykjavik, we picked up our rental car and started on our 3 1/2 hour journey to Nyp – our first destination point.

Guesthouse Nyp
Guesthouse Nyp

It took a few moments to adjust the brain to driving on the right side, or the wrong side, of the road. This was followed by a minor panic attack as the GPS froze over. Then there was the major decision about how hot we wanted the car and then … well, then it hit me. I am in the land that inspired Tolkien. It didn’t take long to see why.

The sun was shining as we wound our way through a landscape like nothing I have ever seen before. It is like the moon, the Scottish Highlands, Norway, New Zealand and Mad Max all decided to make this their common room! There are waterfalls cascading over grey rocks and disappearing into green meadows. Glaciers tower over copper coloured mountain peaks playing solitaire on black lava fields. What is this place?! And why has it taken me fifty years to get here?

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I stop to buy a bottle of water. “May I suggest you don’t buy bottled water? It is a trick. Just use tap water,” says the lady behind the counter. I stare at her, stammer a “thank you”, and walk back out of the shop without a water bottle. Icelanders, as I had just found out, are fiercely protective of their beautiful environment!

Snaefellsness Peninsula
Snaefellsness Peninsula

Our kind hosts at Guesthouse Nyp make us feel very welcome. Thora, our hostess, serves a breakfast feast that should earn her a Michelin Star. She takes a moment to explain where everything we are eating was sourced from, most of it from her own garden. Then there is the dinner – freshly caught cod, homegrown salad and vegetables. I rave about her meal and indicate I will let people know on TripAdvisor. “Please don’t say a thing,” she says, “otherwise I will be cooking all the time.” I smile to myself. The people here are as honest and as much salt of the earth as the salt they harvest from their seashore.

It is summer here, but when those winds blow it is a no brainer about why this place is aptly named ‘Iceland’. So if you are planning a trip, pack warm, layered clothing. Make sure you have water resistant hiking shoes … and purchase some rain pants. O, and read ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent (more about that book in another post).

I will be back with another Iceland instalment in a few days.

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Iceland, Here I Come!

“The problem with driving around Iceland is that you’re basically confronted by a new soul-enriching, breath-taking, life-affirming natural sight every five goddamn minutes. It’s totally exhausting.” – Stephen Markley

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Iceland! It’s been on the Bucket List for a very long time. In a few weeks, the beloved and I will be travelling to this isolated, under-populated island on top of the world … and I can’t wait!

If you are going to travel, my partner-in-crime is your ‘go to’ guy. He has meticulously planned our days from the time we arrive in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital city, to the car hire, accommodation, and cash conversion. I do not share his eye for detail or enthusiasm for travel planning. But over the years, and on our many travelling adventures, I can only say how grateful I am to this travel mastermind.

As a devout nature lover, Iceland has always fascinated me. It has a unique landscape, shaped by the forces of nature: geysers, mudpots, ice-covered volcanoes and glaziers. Locals and tourists alike fall in love with its green valleys, fjords and roaring rivers. As I write this, I glance at my hiking boots with great anticipation!

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Icelanders are obviously very proud of their beautiful piece of the planet. They have gone to great length to preserving their natural wealth through conservation and responsible fisheries management. According to the Environmental Performance Index, Iceland is the world’s greenest country. Renewable energy is a major focus and nearly every home in the country is heated from renewable energy sources. I do wish the powers-that-be in my own beautiful habitat would pay attention to reasoning and the actions of these Northerners!

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Then there are the books! Research shows that more books are written, published and sold per person per year in Iceland than anywhere else in the world. As a young child I was fed a steady diet of bedtime stories from Brothers Grimm, Norse Mythology and Icelandic Sagas. These sagas remain an integral part of Icelander identity. They also contain valuable information and record monumental events, like the discovery of a large island called ‘Vinland’ by Leif Erikson – an island later divided into two and renamed Canada and America! The sagas influence how we tell and read stories to this day … Tolkien would agree.

Ég tala ekki íslensku! But not to worry, there are some great apps to help with that problem. And, yes, my travel-wizard partner has already downloaded them. Icelandic is an insular language and has not been greatly influenced by other languages. It holds similarities to Norwegian and Faroese, but has changed very little from when the country was settled in the ninth and ticeland-quotes-1enth century. Icelandic is astoundingly difficult to speak and even harder to pronounce. Fortunately, most Icelanders speak English, so I won’t even attempt to demonstrate my zero Icelandic competence … and I won’t tell my enthusiastic travelling companion that we probably won’t use his freshly downloaded apps.

Let’s not forget the hot springs. Ingrained in Icelandic culture is the wonderful habit of bathing outdoors in volcanically heated pools – a tradition started by the Vikings. Theseblue-lagoon-569346_1920 geo-thermally heated pools, dotted across the country, have valuable health benefits. The most famous of these is the Blue Lagoon – in a lava field on the Reykjanes Peninsula. My bathers are packed! If you hear some rumours about an insane Australian who missed her flight home because she found marinating in these pools more appealing than a gruelling plane flight home … that could be true!

Sjáumst!

I have a deep and ongoing love of Iceland, particular the landscape, and when writing ‘Burial Rites,’ I was constantly trying to see whether I could distill its extraordinary and ineffable qualities into a kind of poetry. 
– Hannah Kent – 
 
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