Iceland does rugged like nowhere else. It’s an adventurer’s Valhalla, home to numerous waterfalls, hot springs and mountains. Less well-known are its underwater treasures, and chief among these is the Silfra fissure, a narrow chasm along the mid-Atlantic fault line dividing the tectonic plates of the American and Eurasian continents.
Thanks to the remarkable clarity of its glacier-fed waters – the result of being naturally filtered through the lava rock – Silfra makes for a spectacular dive. Not one for the faint-hearted, though: the water is so cold (usually just a few degrees above freezing) that a full drysuit is necessary any time of the year. But as flying is a no-no for at least 18 hours after diving, it means there’s a full day to take on the challenges of some of Iceland’s other natural wonders before heading back to London, or on to New York (Iceland being the perfect transatlantic layover).
Sofia, from my concierge service, fast-tracks me through check-in and security in minutes. I pick up a few supplies and head straight for the lounge. But then it’s three hours in the air on flight WW815 to Reykjavik and another 40 minutes on the tarmac before I reach Hotel Borg, opened in 1930 by an Icelandic circus strongman and wrestling champion. As I hit the sack, I feel like I’ve done a round myself.
Where the hell am I? And where’s the light switch? The momentary confusion of the frequent traveller is quickly overcome with a shot of strong coffee. An hour later I’m with my driver, Gunnar, on the 45-minute ride to Silfra. The view could be Scotland: all grassy heath and distant snowcapped peaks. That’s until we cross the clearly discernible continental divide, where America’s geographical reach ends with a marked cliff drop onto the Eurasian plate. “Iceland is the only place you can drive from America to Europe in 10 minutes,” Gunnar claims proudly. We turn off the road into a car park. Beneath the cliffs an Icelandic flag flutters in the wind. The area is a Unesco World Heritage site not only for its geology; it’s also where the world’s first parliament was held – a millennium ago.
With his long ginger beard, Enno, my dive instructor, looks every inch the Icelandic Viking, but is actually from Austria. “Paperwork first,” he says. Here it’s mandatory to be drysuit-certified (I got mine over a weekend with the London School of Diving, near Heathrow). In the back of a heated van, Enno runs through the dive plan. “We start with a weight check, then head into a big crack and over shallows before going deeper again.
“The visibility is what makes it special,” he adds. “This is the clearest water in the world that we know of.”
An assistant helps me into my rig. It weighs about 30kg, which feels like a ton. Fortunately, we don’t have to walk far to reach the water’s edge. Its temperature – 4ºC – isn’t so enticing, but its colour is: the fissure looks as though it’s been filled with mineral water. Which in a sense, it has – pure, volcanic still water that’s been filtered over decades.
At a specially constructed platform, we complete the final checks, don masks, pop our regulators in and jump. At first, entirely focused on not sinking like a lead weight to the bottom, I don’t notice my surroundings. Buoyancy in a drysuit is quite the art form, even for a seasoned diver: miscalculate and you shoot to the surface, an ideal way to get decompression sickness, better known as the bends. What’s more, pockets of air in your suit can upset your balance. I battle on, injecting and expelling air, trying not to kick too hard to hold my position, concentrating on regular breaths and not dropping the GoPro lent to me by the tour operator. I look across at Enno; he’s as motionless as a Zen priest.
“OK?” he signals in divers’ sign language. “OK,” I reply, optimistically.
We descend into deeper waters and through a narrow chasm into an open chamber – and that’s when it hits me. It’s like the feeling you get walking into the nave of a great cathedral and being rooted to the spot in sheer wonder; only I’m floating. Maybe it’s the fabled nitrogen narcosis, but at that moment I feel like an intergalactic explorer flying through space. Not even the tiny leak in my drysuit can cut the euphoria.
After following the chasm for about 100m we emerge into the shallower waters of a lagoon and surface. It’s only then that I realise how cold I’ve become. I can’t feel my hands and I can’t speak properly – my face has gone numb. Back at base I strip out of my clothing, put on my dry stuff – in fact, every item of clothing I can find – and jump in the car. Enno hands me a hot chocolate and explains the drysuit’s vulnerability at the cuffs and neck; if the rubber’s just a fraction too loose, water can seep in.
“Do you still want the second dive?” he asks. A reasonable question, but there’s no way I’m not going back in. Through chattering teeth, with shaking hands, I leave him in no doubt.
“Great,” he grins. “I’ll find you another suit.” I turn the heating up to max and continue shaking.
Like many life experiences, it’s even better the second time. We start in the same place but squeeze through a gap in the rock into a parallel chamber. About halfway through, at a depth of several metres, it narrows. I watch as Enno stretches out his arms, touching both sides as he glides through. This is the highlight of Silfra: the point at which one can reach out and touch both continents. If there were a diver’s dial for awestruckness, mine would be nudging the limit. We descend to our maximum depth of 15m and spot a couple of trout: an unexpected bonus, as fish are rarely seen. Eventually, we’re back at the lagoon. This time, I can just about speak: “That was amazing.”
In the car I dress, demolish the packed lunch and nod to Gunnar to make for the next stop – the geothermal hot springs of Reykjavik’s Blue Lagoon. Judging by the car park, every tourist in Iceland has had the same idea, but the pools are large enough for all of us. I claim an outflow where 38ºC water bubbles up from a depth of 2,000m, lie back and let the warmth permeate my core.
Back at the hotel, I enjoy the art deco touches that eluded me at 1am the night before: the monochrome foyer design, the elevator call buttons, the room-number plaques that hint at the 1930s grandeur once enjoyed by guests such as Marlene Dietrich. Then it’s on to supper to replenish all those calories lost to cold. Clearly, there’s only one choice – the Arctic char – and it’s cooked to perfection.
One day to “do” the rest of Iceland –impossible, but we’re going to try. Gunnar is outside in a “super jeep”, an adapted 4x4 with 115cm wheels for river crossings. First up: a tour of Raufarhólshellir, a lava tunnel almost 2km long and formed in an eruption 5,200 years ago.
“When you think of Iceland, you tend to think of volcanoes. This is as close as you can get,” says my guide, Agata Jablonska. “It gives a feeling for caving and you can see these beautiful formations.” We switch our helmet headlamps on and venture into the deep. Within a few hundred metres, we’re scrambling over massive rocks and boulders in the pitch black.
Two hours later – normally it takes three – we emerge blinking into the light. Lunch is a quick bite at a bakery before an hour or so’s drive and a bit of off-roading to Thorsmork valley (named after the Norse god of thunder and famously a Game of Thrones location) to pay homage to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which wreaked worldwide havoc when it erupted in 2010. We pass thunderous waterfalls and deep canyons and cross several rivers to emerge at the base of what was, before it was obliterated in the eruption, the Gigjokull glacier. I make a quick sweaty hike up to where the rock split in two and wonder at the raw, elemental power of nature, tangible here as in few other places on earth. “Please don’t erupt again,” I think. “I have a flight to catch.”
By the time we make it back to the hotel it’s late; I order some room service and set the alarm for 3.15am. The first flight of the day duly deposits me in London three hours later – burnt out as a lump of molten ash, but positively glowing.