Chapter 1 – The arrival
Iceland is a dark and ancient land. From the ghost-swept plateau of Sprengisandur, to the monstrous Grýla and her child-eating pet, the Jólakötturinn, this blackened, isolated island has a folklore and history that is as bleak and unforgiving as the cold sea that surrounds it.
In places such as this, folklore and history aren’t necessarily two distinct entities, but tend to overspill into one another. The boundaries of one and the other aren’t as clear cut as modern man might believe, and it is in the confrontation of this grey area between speculated myth and accepted reality, that truth will drive us mad with the notion of our own ignorance.
That, or outright kill us, if we do not heed its warning cry.
In contrast, travelling through Iceland can be a beautiful experience, if your sense of wonder is piqued by stark nature vistas and otherworldly landscapes. There are many routes and spots to visit, some more easily accessible than others; the most famous one probably being The Golden Circle.
Measuring only circa 230 kilometres in total, if you start and stop in Reykjavík, it will still give you the sense of being completely cut off from modern life in many areas of the route. Thus it is that you can climb a hill and feast your eyes on land nearly untarnished by human hand from horizon to horizon.
On a trip last summer, I did just that. It was late afternoon, but even as evening was drawing near, it was still light outside. The clear sky was only lightly speckled by white clouds, promising of a star-filled night later on.
The hill in question was not actually a hill, but rather the rim of the large Kerið crater. While it is comparatively young compared to other craters surrounding it, Kerið still pre-dates our current calendar by approximately a thousand years, and what lies beneath the opaque surface of the lake in the middle of it can still be seen as something of a mystery to the fantastically inclined traveller.
Probably given the late hour, the attendant booth next to the parking lot stood empty, it’s occupant having likely gone home for the day, leaving the place open for me to explore as I wished. I had the place all to myself, and took an easy stroll up the path on the side of the crater, where upon reaching the crest, I was immediately awestruck by the beauty of the place. There was sparse green vegetation up high, which further down the inner slope gave way to the red gravel and further down still sand, that gives the crater its distinct look, and contrasts the surface of the lake which resides in it. The water itself is often seen as a stark blue, but due to the waning of the day, it was now creeping closer to black, which in no way decreased the visual experience. Turning around, I could see the sun slowly setting behind a wide-stretched plain, with Búrfell giving a bit of character to the land north-northwest of me, and the road and a small handful of scattered farms being the only evidence of humans around.
Even with the sun setting, the oncoming evening was still light, and I followed the rim a short way to the north, where the slope down wasn’t as steep, and a rudimentary set of stairs had been crafted directly into the ground, for an easier access to the lake below.
Reaching the end of these steps, the slope levelled out to a small, red beach on which nearly imperceptibly small waves rolled in. A wooden bench had been placed here, and there was also a sign clearly stating that entering the water was strictly prohibited. Strangely, there was a strong pull in me to do just that, imagining the pleasure it would give me to shed my clothes and enter the water for a short swim. I’m quite adept at swimming, so I wasn’t afraid that I couldn’t handle it, but chose to follow the restrictions nonetheless. If for no other reason, I hadn’t brought anything to dry myself off with, but I am also of the conviction that if someone tells you not to mess with nature, you shouldn’t do it unless absolutely necessary – and this wasn’t that.
Instead, I spent a few minutes sitting on the beach, enjoying the contact with the cool earth underneath, and just soaking in the atmosphere of the place. It truly was a wonder of nature, and regardless of which direction I looked, there was something pleasing to see. The only sound was a slight rustling breeze, and the low chirping of some unseen bird.
As time passed, the shadows grew longer, and I wanted to take a tour around the top of the crater before heading on to find a place of rest for the night. As I reached the crest of the crater however, I could see that I was no longer alone. Another car had entered the parking lot, a rental from Kúkú Campers just like my own, albeit a bit bigger, and from it came three 20-something persons, two men and a woman. They were in a festive, probably slightly intoxicated mood and spoke loudly enough that I could hear that they were countrymen of mine. I had no inclination to stay and greet them however, and began my circumference walk while they were still heading up the outside path that led to the stairs towards the lake. If they took any notion of me or not, I cannot say, as they seemed engrossed in their own company, and paid little attention to anything else.
Taking my time still enjoying the nature around me, I had just reached the northeast part of the crater, when the group reached the beach inside. I admit, I couldn’t quite keep them out of my attention, even though I had no real interest in what they were doing. They were just too noisy to completely ignore, and while I couldn’t make out exactly what they said, I could see that they had decided to shed their clothes and approached the water. One of the young men strode forth confidently, as the girl, possibly his girlfriend, tagged along behind, while the last man hung back on the shore, seeming more hesitant.
The first two went splashing into the water, and you may think me a grumpy old fart even though I haven’t yet reached my 40ies, but I was quietly annoyed by their disregard of the rules, and also of how this would reflect on me, being from the same country as them. Their irreverent playtime seemed almost sacrilegious in the otherwise still evening and solemn setting. Worse than the fact that they broke the rules of man, this seemed like an affront to nature itself.
Yet, how could I blame them for their actions? Had I not felt the same pull when I was down there? Was a strong sense of following the rules not the only thing separating myself from them right now? And why was the water so compelling?
Just as I decided to continue my stroll, I noticed something else – a long line of people coming up the rim of the crater from the parking lot. They seemed to be robed in some dark, heavy fabric which was unidentifiable from this distance. Not quite leathery, yet it had an odd, dull shine to it. The long robes went all the way to the ground, which made them appear to not so much walk as glide up the path. The impression made me shudder, but I wasn’t sure why. Where had they come from? As I said, there were only a handful of houses and farms in sight, and they were far from here, as well as from one another. How could I have missed their approach for so long?
The three youths had clearly not noticed anything yet, but it wouldn’t be long, as the line of robes were now crossing the rim, and beginning the inward descent.
What frightened me more than anything, was the deathly stillness of the new arrivals. They were certainly not spirits or ghosts, but real, material beings, yet not a sound came from them as they moved down the inner slope. No one spoke, no rubble rolled under their feet, or whatever those damned robes were hiding underneath.